So there you are, summer winding down, trying to find a movie you can take the kiddies to, when you see the description of a film called "Cop Car." The following is an actual synopsis found online: "A pair of 10-year-olds find an abandoned cop car in a field. When they take it for a joyride, it seems like they could kill themselves at any moment. But things only get worse when the small town sheriff goes looking for his missing car. The kids find themselves in the center of a deadly game of cat-and-mouse they don't understand, and the only way out is to go as fast as their cop car can take them."
"That," you might say, "sounds like perfect family viewing! Two loveable scamps on a vehicular romp with a bumbling Buford T. Justice in hot pursuit!" Sure, it's got the word "deadly" in there. But it's two 10-year-olds driving a 3,500-pound police cruiser. That's deadly, right?
So off to the movies you and your kids will go, where you'll find, instead, an R-rated murderfest in which Kevin Bacon, in full-on sleazeball, stained-undershirt, pornstache mode, relentlessly pursues said loveable scamps to (SPOILER ALERT) a Hamlet-esque slaughter in which nearly everybody in the movie ends up dead, including a cow.
Didn't see that one coming, did ya?
All that said, unless you wander into this thing expecting some googly-eye anthropomorphic-automobile eye candy starring a sedan named Officer Buick, you'll likely find "Cop Car" to be at least a somewhat compelling film, featuring an interesting collision of childhood innocence and all-too-adult depravity. It's a movie that — like everything from "Stand By Me" to "Night of the Hunter" to "Mud" — understands that childhood is often about the process of learning that summer doesn't last forever, and neither do we.
James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford star as Travis and Harrison, respectively, two 10-year-olds who have lit out for the territories from their less-than-ideal homes, trekking across the ugliest part of Colorado toward God knows what end (while we never know exactly what they're running from, the fact that nobody ever apparently alerts the cops to the fact that they're missing for over 24 hours probably tells you something).
In a tree line at the edge of the windswept prairie wastes, they come upon a sheriff's cruiser parked in the middle of all that nothing. It's only after they've found the keys under the sun visor, figured out the wide pedal and the long skinny one, and taken off that we see why the car was there, by way of a (somewhat clumsily executed) flashback: Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), calmly stripping out of his duty uniform before rolling a dead body out of the trunk and dragging it into the bushes. What Kretzer DIDN'T remove from the trunk, and why it's there, sets him off in pursuit of the two boys, with the sheriff desperately trying to find them and the car before his department does.
The issue with kid-centric movies, other than most of them being saccharine enough to cause cancer in rats, is that many filmmakers clearly don't get the psychology of kids, especially those on the cusp of puberty. Kids may be playful and imaginative, but they're not small, very stupid, slightly insane adults who exist in some kind of dreamlike, near-hallucinatory twilight between reality and imagination. While a lot of filmmakers wind up depicting kids that way, the best films understand that once a child reaches a certain age — an age that isn't as old as you might think — he or she knows that there is a time to play and a time to be serious.
Travis and Harrison seem to fall into the "small, stupid, slightly insane adult" pitfall fairly often early on in the film. As the tension and danger rises, however, their characters both pick up a nice edge of maturity, and that's very welcome. They're rough as actors, but surprisingly good, especially Wellford. Too, they play well off of Bacon, who avoids the "Scumbag Cop" stereotype so well that he actually manages evoke a little sympathy at times.
Overall, "Cop Car," while not a perfect film, was a surprising one. If nothing else, it shows the power of a simple, MacGuffin-led storyline in which everybody wants the same object and some are willing to kill to get it. Too, it shows that a movie about kids doesn't have to be about mermaids and unicorns and shit. As much as some adults try to protect them from the harsher facets of life, kids live right alongside us in the cold, hard world. Often, they're forced to deal with cold, hard problems. It's good that at least some of cinema reflects that reality.