The siren heard over the opening seconds of “A Cop Movie” doesn’t emanate from a car at all, but from an actor, imitating the piercing sound of approaching police with her voice. That’s a fitting fake-out with which to begin Alonso Ruizpalacios’ astoundingly original look at what makes an effective Mexico City cop. Technically, this outside-the-box project could be classified as a documentary, though the “Güeros” director is anything but typical in his approach, which will probably play best to those who tune in blind. The film, which debuted at the Berlin Film Festival, will launch on Netflix, where it’s easy to be caught unawares by movies (like “Dick Johnson Is Dead”) that push the boundaries.
Gazing out through the windshield of a Mexico City squad car, the movie opens a lot like your standard episode of “Cops” (or “Police Squad,” if the camera had been mounted on the roof). María Teresa Hernández Cañas — or Teresa for short — receives a call and rushes to the scene. Audiences feel a nervous disorientation upon arrival, much as she must with each potentially dangerous situation, and it’s easy to assume that the guy waiting in the street might be reaching for a gun — but it’s just his cellphone. The stranger leads her inside the building, where a pregnant woman is about to give birth. The medical unit is slow to arrive, so Teresa steps in, helping to deliver the baby. For her trouble, she gets to keep the placenta.
It’s a super-cop moment — the kind of exhilarating, above-and-beyond service to the community that reminds a cynical officer why she joined the force in the first place — and it’s all shot in a thrillingly immersive way that puts audiences at the center of this career-defining moment. Except, if viewers are even the slightest bit critical about the footage they consume, there’s no way Ruizpalacios and his crew could have gotten this coverage of such an intense private moment. Something’s being manipulated, but it’s not yet clear what.
Teresa is one of two subjects in “A Cop Movie,” the other being her partner (in work and in love), José de Jesús Rodríguez Hernández, or “Montoya,” as he’s known on the street. Both followed in family members’ footsteps to become officers — Teresa’s dad was a cop, as was Montoya’s older brother — and both have grown cynical about their jobs. Teresa describes how the top brass hit on recruits, and we see Montoya routinely humiliated while doing thankless tasks, like guarding a gay pride parade.
Both cops share disarmingly honest stories about how difficult it is to do a job the public doesn’t trust or appreciate without proper support from the institution they represent. Sincere as it sounds, their testimony comes across as scripted, flowing continuously between scenes, like the lyrics of a well-choreographed music video. Some scenes, such as the one where Teresa’s dad is shot directly in front of her, are clearly reenactments, while others involve slick camera tricks, like swish pans and dolly moves. How did Ruizpalacios pull off these scenes?
What isn’t immediately clear, but snaps into focus about midway through, is that we’ve been watching two actors all along. Mónica del Carmen plays Teresa, Raúl Briones embodies Montoya, and it’s hard to know just how realistic or reliable to consider these early scenes. Even small details, like the furnishings of their respective apartments (the curios that decorate her bedroom mirror, the barren shelves of his bachelor refrigerator), are so meticulously art-directed as to be suspicious, but they certainly give a strong impression of these two personalities, amplified by the jazzy Lalo Schifrin music that sneaks in from time to time.
In the United States, it’s a crime to impersonate a police officer, but for the sake of Ruizpalacios’ experimental project, that’s essentially the assignment. Although Teresa and Montoya are actual cops, they do not appear as themselves until very late in the film. In what becomes the defining stunt of “A Cop Movie,” Ruizpalacios asked his two lead actors to immerse themselves for 101 days: They enlist in the police academy, doing training exercises and ride-alongs with working professionals.
It’s something that a doc maker like Morgan Spurlock might put himself through but in this context, becomes a grueling prerequisite for Ruizpalacios’ cast. Then again, as the director implies, what is police work if not a kind of role play? Briones and del Carmen make video diaries of their experience, in which it’s clear they couldn’t be more different from the characters they portray. “I’ve always been scared of police,” Briones confesses. “Why the hell did I agree to this? … I don’t want to be a cop.” Still, their interactions with real officers prove illuminating. “No one really cares if a cop dies,” says one, explaining how the community reacts to police brutality, while taking the protection law enforcement provides for granted.
The situation sounds even more complicated in Mexico than in the U.S., where recent “Abolish the Police” protests make this complex and frequently paradoxical portrait especially timely. Americans often hear how much worse police corruption is south of the border, but it’s chilling to realize that Mexicans consider a police stop far more dangerous in the U.S. As for bribes, “A Cop Movie” doesn’t excuse such abuses of power per se, but it does allow Teresa and Montoya to explain how their own values came to be so thoroughly compromised. Their candor on the subject is disarming for reasons best not revealed here.
Suffice it to say, Ruizpalacios is swiftly emerging as one of the most exciting new voices in Mexican cinema. Over the course of just three features (including 2018 true-crime Rubik’s Cube “Museo”) and a couple of intriguing TV assignments (“Narcos: Mexico” and Starz’s “Vida”), he’s shown a willingness to challenge both cinematic conventions and those of society itself. At times, “A Cop Movie” seems unnecessarily convoluted in its structure, but by the end, the brilliance of its design becomes clear: This is nothing short of an existential inquiry into what it takes to be a cop. By introducing actors into the equation, the director contrasts that impulse with the “motivation” an outsider must find to imagine such a controversial choice of career. If getting there means breaking a few laws, that’s a risk Ruizpalacios is willing to take.