Kev, Where's Your Car?: Lean, mean "Cop Car" never gets out of first gear

Cop Car (2015)
86 min., rated R.

Already tapped to helm the next "Spider-Man" reboot for Marvel and Sony Pictures, director Jon Watts is only on his sophomore feature after his under-the-radar horror film "Clown" has yet to be released in the states. He showcases his clout with low-budget crime-thriller "Cop Car," a spare, cut-down genre exercise that starts off being a masterwork in lean, efficient visual storytelling. There is almost no fat on the bones of this thin yarn, beginning with a sense of innocent boyhood and discovery, not unlike 2013's "Mud," before treading the same bleak, savage, cold-blooded terrain as a Cormac McCarthy novel and ensuring that no one's safety is guaranteed. Writer-director Watts and co-writer Christopher D. Ford were on their way to make a raw, feel-it-in-the-gut throwback to nastily fun exploitation cinema, but their script never fully takes off and has a hard time getting out of first gear.

When 10-year-old friends Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) run away to the open fields of Colorado, they ration out a Slim Jim to eat and exchange swear words. What they don't expect to find is an abandoned cop car parked in a brush. At first, they dare each other to tag the car, but once realizing the driver is nowhere to be found, except for a beer bottle on the hood, the two boys hop in and pretend to be in hot pursuit. Travis then finds the keys and both he and Harrison go on a joy ride, unaware of just what they have done. The cruiser belongs to the crooked Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who, minutes before leaving his vehicle, has dumped a body from his trunk.

The main setup for "Cop Car" arouses interest right away and holds the viewer for almost the full hour. Although two others turn up not for long, there are three core characters. As Harrison and Travis, Newcomers Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson act how real troubled, ignorant kids their own age really would act in such a dangerous daredevil situation, whether it be neither of them knowing how to put the car into drive at first before all of their Mario Kart practice kicks in. Sporting a sleazy mustache, an effectively ropey Kevin Bacon menaces around with purpose—those meddling kids stole his ride and he needs it back—but it's Shea Whigham, as a bloodied and beaten but still-living man the boys find in the sheriff's trunk, who stomps off with the single most chillingly evil monologue in which he describes in detail what he will do to both Harrison and Travis' loved ones. Camryn Manheim also stops in (again, not for long) as busybody passerby Bev who will regret seeing the two boys recklessly speed by her in the cop car; her participation is little more than a plot device (and collateral damage), but what co-writers Watts and Ford decide to do with Bev is startlingly unforgivable.

Jon Watts' direction is taut and concise. He knows how to wring tension out of a scene in spite ofor maybe because ofthe lack of a music score. For example, when Kretzer has to steal another car in a trailer park by using his shoelace to unlock the door, Watts shoots the scene in real time, allowing the viewer to see him fail and then eventually succeed. When there is a music score, the synthesizer beats by Phil Mossman are appropriately off-putting. Just as it becomes more disconcerting the way the sight of two boys playing around with a loaded gun and bullet-proof vest would be, "Cop Car" builds to a violent western-like showdown along an open, empty desert road where the sound of a windmill gets drowned out by gunfire. It's tense, but the particulars of the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer and a deal gone wrong must be beside the point because they never remotely come to the surface. Simplicity is good, and so is a script that doesn't spell everything out, but one that just sort of peters out is a different story. With each new turn of the screw, it's not so easy to guess where it will go next, but the unfussy, bare-bones plotting of "Cop Car" just isn't enough.

Grade: C +