'One Good Cop' offers three cute kids, two OK plots, one good actor

May 03, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'One Good Cop'

Starring Michael Keaton.

Directed by Heywood Gould.

Released by Hollywood Pictures.

Rated R.

** There are 8 million stories in The Naked City and "One Good Cop" is two of them.

The new Michael Keaton film offers a number of pleasures but it's compromised by its own identity crisis. It wants to be a gritty urban street drama; it wants to be a warm-hearted family drama. While there's no rule saying that it can't be both, the movie still seems at war with itself as it changes tones jarringly in each reel.

Keaton is the best thing in it; it's strange that it has taken him this long to play a police officer. He makes one good cop: Feral, instinctive, with a cop's gift for gab and manipulation, he also has a working-class streak of toughness in him. And he doesn't seem -- how can I phrase this delicately? -- a genius either. His Artie Lewis is just a working Joe, committed to the job but not about to solve the mystery of Maria Roget or explain who killed Roger Akroyd.

With his partner Stevie, played by Anthony LaPaglia, he's called to a "situation": A dope head has freaked on a virulent strain of crack called "ice" and is holding his own wife and kids hostage with a machine-pistol. Artie and Stevie try to talk the guy down; shots are fired and Stevie is killed, leaving three darling little girls orphaned (Stevie's wife had conveniently died before the movie began, and Artie's wife is conveniently barren. Hmmm.)

Artie takes charge of the girls and his wife Rita, played by Rene Russo, finally feels the motherhood that's been biologically denied her. Curiously, the domestic aspects of the film are its least satisfying. The three kids -- Grace Johnston, Rhea Silver-Smith, and Blair Swanson -- are cute but the whole family circus has been superficially imagined. Keaton's Mr. Mom act is old hat, and the kids are quickly reduced to typical show-biz ickiness; there's none of the messiness of real life. It feels like TV.

Meanwhile, Artie is tracking down the big bad "ice" dealer, played by Tony Plana, who was a de rigueur Latino nasty boy in every single episode of "Miami Vice." Well, at least in every other one.

Again, it's not bad. You feel writer-director Heywood Gould struggling to impart texture to this part of the story. For example, when Keaton gets punched in the face, he wears a bruise on his mug for the next two weeks. Nice touch. On the other hand, the fights are still based on those elaborate movie-style round-house punches that arrive like ICBM's from Siberia. Not nice.

The problem with two stories, however, is that each feels undernourished and hurried. And the movie hurtles through plot points without a lot of time for preparation. Clearly, it means to join them; and when it does, the medium is robbery, which suddenly spins the story off in a whole new direction, challenging our assumptions about Artie Lewis' "goodness."

And also: What we like about cops is how smart they are, what they know, how they flourish in a zone of hostility. But Artie, pardon the French, is le dumb bozo: He ad libs a completely ill-considered drug rip-off, then scrambles ineffectively to cover his own tail. Only the intercession of a tough undercover cop saves his bacon from the fire.

Other absurdities: Huge gunfights in apartment buildings during which nobody calls the cops (OK, so it's New York); cops walking big as silhouette targets into dark basements; a "Brooklyn" suburb that's clearly somewhere south of Redondo Beach; and "New York" streets on which parking actually exists.

Production notes wax lyrically about "location shooting" in Manhattan but reveal three pages later that the film really only spent two weeks there; the rest is L.A. standing in for the Apple, and doing a pretty lousy job of it.

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