Two ten-year-olds find and steal an abandoned cop car, leaving a corrupt police officer stranded and desperate to retrieve his stolen car, which has some incriminating evidence locked away in its trunk. The synopsis of Cop Car seems deceptively simple, but there’s nothing deceptive about it. Cop Car is a thriller solely about the theft and retrieval of the eponymous vehicle. What is deceptively exceptional however is how such a bare-bones story with such little character development can be this continuously intriguing.
The two child felons at the center of the story, Travis and Harrison (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, respectively) have just run away from their families and upon finding an empty cop car with its keys foolishly left inside, decide to drive away instead. Director Jon Watts and his co-writer Christopher D. Ford imbue Travis and Harrison with an innocence that they will likely lose once this day is over. Upon finding the car, they both claim to know how to drive because of Mario Kart and often stare directly down the barrel of the guns they find in the car. Their simple way of viewing the world fills a majority of their scenes with a certain level of fear and unnerving behavior. They naively don’t have concern for the world around them.
Because of their viewpoint, they could never expect that the car’s owner, Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) could be as crooked as he is, or frankly anything other than a person to be admired. Kretzer, however, had his car stolen as he was trying to dispose of two bodies and after discovering his absence of a car, boosts himself up with some coke and goes to a nearby trailer park to simply steal another ride. After the cops are tipped off that there seems to be a police car driven by a pair of kids, Kretzer heads after his cruiser by any means necessary. As Kretzer, Bacon is wonderful in a role that demands he is both the source of danger and humor throughout.
Watts and Ford’s screenplay has a sort of Coen brothers sensibility, occasionally throwing in dark humor in moments of intense drama. Even furthering that Coen comparison is an almost Cormac McCarthy style of utilizing only whatever objects are nearby to solve the problems at hand. For example, when Kretzer tries to steal a new car to track down his stolen one, he unlaces his boot and uses the string to try to unlock a truck with the window slightly cracked. Watts shows his many failed attempts, treating the moment with a tenseness that is surprising. Watts has recently been chosen to direct the next Spider-Man reboot and this combination of humor, action, and rising stakes seems like it could be a potentially great style for his future endeavor.
While Cop Car is entertaining in its simplicity, it also lacks any true depth in terms of who these characters are. Watts and Ford have written these three characters as essentially good vs. evil, no more, no less. We learn snippets of information about the lives of these two kids, but nothing more than who they live with, what pets they have, and that they both clearly wanted to escape their lives. As for Kretzer, there’s no reason given as to why he happens to have two men that he’s trying to bury.
Cop Car is simple but effective, with few frills to distract from the basic thriller story at its core. The film’s premise is enough to sustain the story, until the easy ending or lack thereof that comes with its conclusion. Maybe Cop Car would’ve been spoiled by adding a few extra layers of depth to its story, but what we do get is an exciting, unsophisticated thriller that’s well worth the ride.