The world was dark when I got here.
The title of writer/director Joel Souza‘s Crown Vic is a stand-in for “old school.” It’s a connection to a past that guys with twenty-five years on the job like Ray Mandel (Thomas Jane) feels fading away. And they’re correct. As new technologies arrive, oversight increases and a beat cops’ freedom to maneuver disappears. Like most complicated examples of progress, however, this is neither wholly good nor bad. We can believe that hyper aggressive racial profilers are a rarity in police forces rather than the norm, but doing so doesn’t negate the importance of keeping that element in check. Can that also place “good” officers in increased peril? Sure. But that’s what happens when “good” cops cover for bad. If you can’t police yourself, other methods will for you.
Souza understands this complexity even if his film ultimately proves to be very much a pro-police piece. That’s okay because we should be pro-police as long as that entity truly works towards serving the people without an inherent bias that seems to be all but ingrained in them during academy training. They’re providing us protection and new equipment like dash-cams and body-cams conversely provide us protection from them (or at least they should in a just system). So Ray can complain about cellphones and increased restrictions hindering his ability to be successful and safe and be right despite those things being crucial to their own accountability. As we’re about to witness on this chaotic Los Angeles night, though, civilians often find themselves defenseless against good and bad.
That’s the interesting part of this “us versus them” mentality. If criminals and police are dismissing everyone but themselves as liabilities, we become helpless in the middle. We have to therefore fear the cop killers at the start of Souza’s movie who are now trolling the streets to cause mayhem and the cops with hair-trigger guns pointed at our faces because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Trust is a two-way street in this regard. Not every criminal is a murderer and not every officer is a racist—but if they’re steeling themselves up to expect the opposite is true, so must we. Because it’s more likely that Nick Holland’s (Luke Kleintank) rookie turns bad than Jack VanZandt’s (Josh Hopkins) unhinged abuser turns good.
Ray is toeing the line between. He’s neither an idealist like Nick nor a complete nihilist like Jack. He knows the good he’s done in Los Angeles and demands respect rather than fear. So even though the circumstances behind his recent reassignment to training officer irk him (warranted or not), he’s possibly the best person to take Nick under wing and show there still is a line. As we see from Jack’s partner (David Krumholtz‘s Stroke Adams), staying within that volatile orbit for too long numbs you to it. Is Ray a boy scout, though? No. Is he willing to take the shot if a future without the person in his crosshairs is better without them? He can’t know until the opportunity demands an answer.
Everything is leading to that moment—Souza isn’t trying to hide it. Will Ray or Nick be holding the gun? Will the chance present itself more than once? And will their response differ depending on what they’ve learned during the times before? Whether this evening is a “regular” shift for the city or not doesn’t excuse the fact that the kitchen sink is thrown in their direction. Maybe a rich white suburban woman with too much to drink fights them tooth and nail. Maybe a calm and collected black man crossing the street without changing clothes from his all-points bulletin doesn’t struggle one bit because fate decided his path for him. Boring situations will turn wild and the opposite comes true too. How will they react?
Nick wrestles with his conscience thanks to peer pressure and the harsh reality confronting him. We are too since we’re not supposed to hold Jack and Ray to different standards just because one has his heart in the right place. Nick starts with this binary outlook because he wants to believe the best in situations, but it can’t stick. How that feeling unravels isn’t always handled with care (his pregnant wife nagging him over the phone to prove he can’t take things on blind faith is a pretty reductive and misogynistic way to make Ray’s cynical point), but we understand the struggle that comes with knowing when a situation is over and when it’s threatening to become worse. This is retribution as a last resort rather than motive.
We delve into Ray and Nick’s psychologies as far as what in their lives have brought them to this moment and what they have of value that they’re willing to protect beyond the realm of the job. We need to know where they stand on brutality—it’s authentic if not troubling to see everyone is okay with it despite differing on the severity—and how they respond via impulse to actions they couldn’t imagine occurring. Souza also allows them ample humor to counter the inherent intensity any film about cops possesses these days and it goes a long way towards letting Crown Vic be its own thing out from under the shadow of Training Day and End of Watch. It doesn’t hurt that Jane and Kleintank have effective cross-generational chemistry.
The result isn’t perfect, but there’s enough to peek inside this complex argument surrounding the police with nuanced emotion. Where Ray’s personal subplot (acting as an overall through-line) and the looming return of the prologue’s thieves go might be predictable, but I never quite knew how Nick would react. And that’s the point. How does what he sees on his first night on the job affect the man he believes himself to be? Will it change him or simply reinforce what he already knew? He’ll have to stand up for the helpless against his brothers in blue and the latter against the not so helpless in equal measure before discovering what the badge means. It’s a symbol of both life and death—hopefully in that order.
courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival