Corey Pegues grew up dealing drugs for Queens’ notorious Supreme Team gang during the 1980s, but he turned his life around by enlisting in the army and, afterwards, by joining the New York Police Department, where he rose through the ranks. Upon retiring in 2013, he spoke publicly for the first time about his criminal history, putting himself in the center of a department, and media, controversy. Guided by commentary from Pegues and those closest to him, “A Cops and Robbers Story” details this unlikely odyssey, albeit with a consistently hazy point-of-view, resulting in a degree of superficiality that should limit its appeal when it debuts in theaters and on VOD on Jan. 14.
Pegues is the primary narrator of “A Cops and Robbers Story,” although at the outset, director Ilinca Calugareanu’s documentary fails to establish the reason for placing her subject before the camera. That lack of introductory context will frustrate those who don’t already know about Pegues. Despite conveying that he straddled both sides of the law, there’s no sense, early on, that Pegues is a divisive figure of local or national note. Instead, amidst snippets about his police officer career, it heads down a straight biographical path, focusing on his youthful days in Queens selling crack on a beloved street corner with his friends, most of whom contribute to his own memories via new interviews.
Director Calugareanu recounts Pegues’ upbringing with sharp visual collages comprised of photos of Pegues and his buddies superimposed on images of their favorite Queens hangouts, as well as through more perfunctory dramatic recreations starring Pegues’ son as his father. Those sequences add little to the overall drama or momentum of “A Cops and Robbers Story,” and thankfully disappear once the narrative segues to Pegues’ 21-year law enforcement tenure. As a member of the NYPD, Pegues’ streetwise appearance and demeanor — as well as his friendliness with those in the neighborhoods he was policing — rankled many of his white colleagues, as former partner Bob Mari makes clear. Nonetheless, that familiarity with his beat, along with his candid and outgoing personality, also allowed him to thrive at his chosen profession.
When Pegues finally came clean about his past — which also included an incident in which he tried to kill a rival dealer, only to have his gun misfire — a scandal erupted, and as with its preceding material, “A Cops and Robbers Story” benefits during these passages from Pegues’ own thoughts on his momentous decision. Yet what’s missing is a directorial POV on this saga, or at least an interest in digging into the thicket of questions raised by Pegues’ experiences. Contentious issues regarding redemption (and whether it can be achieved through deception), hypocrisy, law enforcement protocols and effective policing procedures are all related to Pegues’ plight, but Calugareanu’s film avoids delving into any of them in a serious manner.
In the debate over whether Pegues was an honorable role model or a troublemaking liar, “A Cops and Robbers Story” tacitly takes Pegues side, but even then, its depiction of him as a courageous truth-teller — and against-all-odds success story — is surprisingly muted. While allowing Pegues and his buddies and former colleagues to tell their version of events lends the proceedings an admirable objectivity, the absence of a clear, overriding perspective ultimately renders it a skin-deep portrait.