Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea for Kevin Bacon’s corrupt small-town sheriff to leave the keys inside his unlocked patrol car. And maybe he should have thought twice before tossing his gunbelt in the backseat and stuffing a beaten-and-bound criminal in the trunk. But all those bad decisions make for B-movie gold in Jon Watts’ “Cop Car,” a tight, easily marketable genre exercise that pushes its lean premise and all-around disrespect for authority to entertaining extremes, taking wicked delight in imagining what might happen if two 10-year-olds were to stumble upon an abandoned police cruiser and take it for a joyride.
Conceptually speaking, “Cop Car” is the kind of movie that could only be made by filmmakers too young to have children of their own. No parent would put a pair of preadolescent characters through this kind of torture, and precious few audiences with kids will take the kind of enjoyment Watts and co-writer Christopher Ford (“Robot & Frank”) intended from the second half of the movie, when the fun and games are through and the two boys find themselves locked in the rear, trapped directly in the crossfire between a dirty cop and a desperate con.
But for those still callow enough to identify with 10-year-old Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), the sensation that accompanies “Cop Car” has almost nothing to do with the protective instinct not to endanger kids, and instead feeds off the vicarious thrill of witnessing such reckless behavior. The two child thesps are just convincing enough to carry their respective parts, though Watts wants us to think of them as young hellions, and neither has quite the evil glint in their personalities the screenplay seems to imagine.
After a long opening shot in which the two young runaways walk across an expansive field, challenging one another to repeat the dirtiest words they can think of (a blown chance to write a character-defining scene for the ages, since the pair could be having an infinite number of more interesting conversations in this moment), Travis and Harrison stumble across a dusty brown sheriff’s car parked beside a ravine. There’s a half-empty beer bottle perched on the hood, but no other sign of the driver — although to adults, this clue should already come as a red flag that something ain’t right.
At first, the boys sit crouching behind a wall of bushes, daring one another to run up and touch the car. Watts and Ford’s script prefers to keep all its characters’ backstories vague — all the better for audiences to embellish them as they deem fit — providing just enough indication that Travis and Harrison are themselves on the lam. Maybe the two boys did something they can’t face back home and are now trying to avoid detection, armed only with a single Slim Jim. At any rate, in their own minds, they clearly have reason to fear being caught by a cop. But they can’t resist the temptation of the ultimate abandoned toy, and even though neither has any driving experience beyond videogames, that doesn’t stop them from firing up the engine, messing around with the various levers and rolling off in the vehicle before its owner comes back.
“What if somebody sees us?” one of the boys hesitantly asks. “We’ll just tell ’em we’re cops,” the other replies, earning the film’s biggest laugh, while also giving a pretty good indication of just how limited their 10-year-old logic can be.
While the kids are off having fun testing the speed limit and teaching themselves to drive, “Cop Car” takes the opportunity to rewind and introduce the mean sonuvabitch who left the car unattended in the first place. That would be Bacon, sporting a mean sneer behind his menacing white-trash mustache. With minimal dialogue, the sheriff hauls the first of two bloody, unidentified adult males out of his trunk and proceeds to drag the body through the woods to a giant pit, where he plans to dump the corpses. Needless to say, this isn’t typical police behavior. Milking his every onscreen second, Bacon’s sheriff is mixed up in something crooked, and the kids happened to stumble by at the worst possible time — though in light of the circumstances, they’d be in deep trouble even if they hadn’t stolen the car.
The instant the sheriff discovers that his wheels are missing, things escalate pretty quickly as he juggles trying to cover his tracks with dispatch with attempting to locate the missing vehicle. And the kids, who have thus far amused themselves playing with the police tape, defibrillator and stockpile of weapons they found in the back, are in for a rude awakening when they open the trunk to discover a man inside (played by a shady-looking Shea Whigham). The only other significant character to complicate the mix is a sour old busybody (Camryn Manheim) who passes the stolen car on the road and has the bad luck to intervene just as the fun turns violent — as the carefree lark evolves into a more high-stakes action movie.
By keeping things simple, Watts is free to exploit the moment-to-moment tension without the baggage of all those elements, such as character and context, that we typically expect from movies. Shot in crisp, atmospheric widescreen, “Cop Car” is just the sort of stripped-down exercise, like Rodrigo Cortes’ “Buried” or the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple,” that presents vaguely sadistic, dark-humored helmers with an opportunity to showcase their technique. For a second-time director, Watts demonstrates masterful control, pushing right up against the limits of what we can take (even non-parents will be rattled watching the boys mishandling loaded weapons), and yet, at every turn, the screenplay falls short of the picture’s full potential, missing opportunities that could have made this a classic.