Can Hollywood Homicide save the buddy-cop movie?

Can Hollywood Homicide save the buddy-cop movie?

Can Hollywood Homicide save the buddy-cop movie?

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June 13 2003 3:23 PM

Cops and Rappers

Hollywood Homicide, a buddy-cop movie that's actually worth seeing.

Still from Hollywood Homicide
Hunky high jinks galore

Hollywood Homicide (Columbia) is the perfect title for this noisy and rambunctious Ron Shelton action comedy, which wears its commercial designs with cheeky candor. The movie is a mismatched buddy-cop picture about a cynical older detective (Harrison Ford) who eats burgers, and a pie-eyed twentysomething detective (Josh Hartnett) who prefers bean sprouts and practices yoga: Stop me if you've heard this one. I was yawning just flipping through the press notes. But if Shelton was lured to Hollywood Homicide by the big-studio paycheck, he didn't leave his wit, his eye for New Age absurdity, or his love of dumb genre pictures behind. This is his brightest piece of direction since White Men Can't Jump (1992)—a mismatched buddy-cop movie to end all mismatched buddy-cop movies. It's bursting with goofy banter, Hollywood in-jokes, sexy love scenes, and chases that go on much too long but have the kind of madcap self-indulgence that makes questions of logic or credibility seem dull-witted. It's a great piece of mindful escapism.

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The film is an obvious runoff from this year's heartbreaking Shelton flop Dark Blue—an impassioned but clunky anti-fascist, anti-LAPD melodrama set in the jittery days before the Rodney King verdict came down. For that one, Shelton immersed himself in the lore and the mindset of the LAPD (and probably also in the modern L.A. noirs of James Ellroy, who devised the story, and Michael Connelly); here he co-wrote the screenplay with veteran homicide investigator Robert Souza. The happy result for Hollywood Homicide is the kind of texture you never see in a blow-out action comedy. The protagonist, Joe Gavilan (Ford), is obsessed not with getting justice but with getting out of debt to three ex-wives and unloading a house in a tacky Hollywood development. He has taken up real estate (after attending a seminar at the airport Hyatt) to meet his expenses, and so he sees every witness or suspect as a potential buyer or seller—a very L.A. mode of existence.

Ford hasn't looked so alert and at home in a role since Witness (1985). His voice now is halfway to a croak, but he's finding expressive new ways to ease the air through those ragged vocal cords—ways reminiscent of recent croaky turns by elderly superstars Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman. He has a harried tenderness when he's kicking back with a glass of Lagavulin and an old Motown record; when he's pumping Lou Diamond Phillips as an undercover cop disguised as a transvestite ("You look good," concedes Ford—and Phillips does!); and when he's being caressed by an astoundingly beautiful—never more beautiful—Lena Olin as a radio psychic with a penchant for high-strung cops.

In the climax, Ford has to chase the chief bad guy (on foot, in cars, on a little girl's bike) while fielding cell-phone calls from a determined buyer and seller: It's outlandish (and outlandishly funny), but there's a higher kind of realism here. A lot of us are walking around with intense financial anxieties these days, and Ford's Gavilan—harassed by bill collectors, repo men, and Internal Affairs officers—seems more plugged in to the zeitgeist than the usual single-minded cop protagonist.

He's perfectly mismatched with Hartnett, who brings a shiny-eyed sincerity to the babe-magnet yoga teacher and aspiring actor K.C. Calden. Hartnett, whose eyebrows are practically joined, doesn't send up the reluctant cop when he tells his older partner that acting is his "bliss," and "I have to follow my bliss." Rehearsing Stanley Kowalski for a self-financed showcase, he seems sweetly oblivious to the fact that he doesn't have it in him—he's probably the only cop in L.A. without a trace of Kowalskian animal cruelty. In one scene he practices bellowing "Stella!" into the yellow morning smog while a gorgeous blonde in his bed eyes him sympathetically: It's Hollywood at its most fatuous and its most blessed.

Hollywood Homicide has its tiresome elements—chiefly anything having to do with the bang-bang central storyline, about a rap-music mogul (Isaiah Washington) who might or might not be putting out contracts on his own more uppity acts. Washington has a sleek assurance, and there are hilarious turns by Master P as a club owner and Kurupt (aka Ricardo Brown) as a rap-song writer. (The movie also has cameos by Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson—not to mention Eric Idle.) But anytime the automatic weapons come out and the hip-hop soundtrack kicks in, it feels like Hollywood action business as usual.

Shelton is too promiscuous with the gunplay for my taste, but at least he's working with a cinematographer, Barry Peterson, who gives the action scenes an airy spaciousness, and a crackerjack editor, Paul Seydor, who knows how to bring out the jokes in mid-chase without undercutting the suspense. A sequence in which Kurupt tries to escape from Hartnett in a tiny pedal boat across a man-made canal while Ford drives back and forth over a succession of dinky bridges is a model of elegance and wit. And the climax has so many classic gags that you almost forget how illogical it is. My favorite bit: the agent who doesn't drop his phone as Gavilan and the top bad guy run through his office firing at each other, but distractedly motions toward the balcony where the suspect has run. It's so ridiculous, but it's so real. It's my bliss.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.