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On a rural street in a suburb of Los Angeles, an early morning drug bust leaves one suspect shot after a patrolman believes he was about to be attacked. Problem is, he had no weapon and now a fellow Officer, Dennis Peck (Gere) decides to cover up the unwarranted killing by putting a knife in the dead man’s hand. Peck believes police need to take care of each other, no mater the ethics or cost. When Peck’s partner, Van Stretch (Baldwin), a hot tempered young officer with a big chip on his shoulder, gets a little rough with some other suspects, the Internal Affairs Department (the police of the police) step in to investigate. One of those IAD officers, Raymond Avila (Garcia), went to the academy with Van and as soon as he sees his old friend, he recognizes there are some issues. Avila learns quickly that Peck is a powerful but corrupt patrolmen, leading him to put pressure on Stretch to give up evidence against Peck and his methods, which causes a lot of friction between the three men and even, almost more tragically, their families.
Directed by Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), this taunt and dark thriller is a rich character study of the decidedly malevolent Peck and his ability to manipulate others. Unrelentingly realistic and grounded, the film never plays stereotypes and tropes but allows characters to be exactly who they are and what they do. For instance, Avila’s senior partner is Amy Wallace (Metcalf), a woman and cop and that is it. Her gender never is an issue. She is a just cop, like the others, and contributes exactly that to the story. It’s refreshing in a film that is full of simple surprises like this. Written by Henry Bean, the dialogue is sharp and intelligent and allows the “action” be about the clashes between personalities and situations, not cartoonish car chases and silly explosions. This is a brilliant, forgotten film that deserves to be seen.
Scene Setup: Van Stretch is hooked on cocaine and mistrusts his wife, who he often beats. He accuses her off having an affair, which she denies, but in fact is most definitely having. Van doesn’t know the identity, but he’s got bigger problems to deal with. And so does Dennis. Avila and Wallace are putting together a strong case against the corrupt officer but Peck is on to Avila and hints that he will make a sexual advance on his wife, which naturally causes a scuffle, but then much worse, paranoia, when Avila begins to suspect she is indeed sleeping with the man he is investigating. Peck, spinning multiple plates, is more worried about his partner, who is now close to having charges filed against him for a number of severe violations, including excessive force and drug abuse. Avila realizes that while Stretch is a bad cop, it is his partner that is the real big fish and offers the young cop a chance for a deal: Give up the goods on Peck and testify and he can catch a break on the charges. Pushed into a corner, he calls his wife to tell her the news, asking for her advice. He doesn’t know it, but as she is speaking with him, she is in fact, at that moment, having sex with Peck. The affair is true and with the one man Van trusts most. Whatever her ambitions or motivations, we sense that what got her in his bed was his cruel manipulation. Van hangs up still unaware. On their next shift, Peck has a talk with Van to inform him that he has made a side deal about Stretch with the Captain, shielding him from permanent dismissal. This greatly relieves the junior officer, though we suspect there is nothing true about the story. Peck already knows he’s lost his loyalty, and so when he asks his partner if he’d had done the same for him, Stretch naturally says yes, even though Peck is already convinced otherwise. His face, unseen by Stretch, winces at the lie and betrayal. The price for which will be the highest one can pay.
The Scene: (Time stamp 00:53:23) That night, with Peck at the wheel, the two cops cruise up on a blue panel van parked near the railroad tracks. They roll to a stop and investigate. Peck goes to the rear driver-side quarter while Stretch, aiming his long-handled Maglit in a defensive position approaches the side sliding door. As Peck watches, Stretch tugs on the handle and opens the door as Peck eases behind the van, an expectation in his eyes. From the dark interior, a man emerges and fires a powerful shotgun blast that sends the junior officer reeling onto the hood of the parked patrol cruiser before tumbling to the pavement. The gruff looking man climbs out of the vehicle and Peck speaks to him in Spanish, clearly in partnership with the killer. As they inspect Stretch’s body, that partnership immediately ceases.
With two dead men at his feet, Dennis takes a few steps into the street and catches his breath, the wheels turning in his mind about what should happen next. First he flicks on the roof lights of his patrol car and grabs the radio handset. As he begins his call to dispatch, we see that behind him, in the van, a second person is inside. At the same time, in a moment of genuine surprise, Stretch, directly at Peck’s feet, stirs to life, gripping his pant leg. Stunned, Peck jumps, but then the van engine also kicks to life and hurriedly drives away, shocking Peck further. He empties his revolver at the fleeing vehicles but misses. Now he’s got help on the way, an officer down, a dead hitman he hired laying in the street and worst of all, an unknown witness in a bullet riddled panel van driving away. He deals with his partner first, cradling him to his chest and putting an arm around his neck. As the mortally wounded Stretch pleas for help, crying to see his family, Peck tightens his grip as sirens approach.
Richard Gere is a better actor than probably most give him credit for, and perhaps movies like Pretty Woman haven’t helped that stigma. Never one to shy away from challenging roles, here he utterly transforms himself into the bad guy. His good looks and charm are powerful weapons in his arsenal and he uses these to great affect as the corrupt cop slowly losing a grip on the world he himself created. Things always get too big. The significance of the scene is revealed in Peck’s reaction when it’s over, as the paramedics arrive and try to revive Stretch. Peck, his hands soaked in his partner’s blood trembles and leans against his car, pressing his hands to his face as he suddenly lets loose a genuine wave of emotion. It’s uncharacteristic of the man and shows that there is remorse in the flawed cop after all.
Of many great moments in the film, this stands out mostly for its atmosphere and jarring, unexpected turn. The music is a steady haunting lull of human voices in chorus, providing a deep layer of tension to the already highly-charged build up, their melancholy tune beautifully signalling a coming dread. Furthermore, there is no dialogue in the scene, only gestures and knowing glances as the scene unfolds with the first words being Van wheezing for help. While not much of a William Baldwin fan, here he does his best work, playing a drug-addled, racist, hyper-stressed L.A. patrol cop in way over his head. Early scenes with his wife and and young son (a blink or you’ll miss it cameo of a very, very young Elijah Wood), showcase Baldwin’s real talent, going toe-to-toe with Gere. In fact, there’s not a weak performance in the entire film, with the leads especially good.
A tight, action thriller from start to finish, the film offers a lot of rewards for those looking to watch an intelligent, well-paced story about trust, betrayal, weakness and manipulation. Chuck full of surprises and outstanding drama, it is a routine stop at a parked panel van that reveals the depth of madness one man will go to preserve his personal empire and destroy anything that threatens it, including the very people who are closest to him.
Director: Mike Figgis
Writer: Henry Bean
Stars: Richard Gere, Andy Garcia, William Baldwin