Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival. Netflix releases the film in select theaters on Wednesday, October 20, with a streaming release to follow on Friday, November 5.
“A Cop Movie” is almost half over before it reveals the full scope of its plot, and even then, it still has a few surprises in store. Director Alonso Ruizpalacios’ exciting and unpredictable look at a pair of Mexico City police officers blends documentary and narrative techniques to deliver a refreshing and innovative look at the challenges of modern-day police work — as well as the underlying corruption that makes the most earnest officers vulnerable to a system rigged against them.
There have been countless documentaries made on that subject, but Ruizpalacios’ dynamic approach roots the exploration in the energy of hardworking officers consumed by the commitments of the job, at least until it turns against them. The movie revolts as well, reinventing its structure midway through with mixed results, but the level of risk and intrigue driving its critical approach to law enforcement sustains an unusual method of interrogating a subject so often seen exclusively in gloomy terms.
With his spirited black-and-white 2014 activist coming-of-age drama “Gueros,” Ruizpalacios emerged as one of the most exciting new voices in Mexican cinema, and his a naturalistic captured a restless city at war with itself. He followed that with “Museo,” a slick heist movie based on a true story. “A Cop Movie” combines those two stylistic impulses along with a clever non-fiction framework.
At its center are two long-time officers, 17-year veteran Theresa, whose father worked in the force for years before her, and Montoya, whose brother left the force years earlier. While the pair are portrayed onscreen by actors Mónica Del Carmen and Raúl Briones, it’s clear from the outset that dramatic scenes essentially exist as prolonged re-enactments driven by voiceovers from interviews with the real subjects. Similar to Clio Barnard’s lip-synched documentary “The Arbor,” Ruizpalacios follows his characters throughout their jobs as they reflect on life stories and motivations for the viewer, creating the beguiling impression of drifting through their recollections. Here’s Theresa driving her police car as she talks about her indoctrination into the force; there’s Montoya, recalling the way police work wrestled him from the despair of a previous breakup as he actually endures it; and finally, there’s the two of them, partners, talking about how their bond deepened with time.
Anyone keen on avoiding the first big twist of “A Cop Movie” should stop here, because Ruizpalacios makes the clever decision to unfurl each of his two main characters with separate chapters before he unifies them for a complete story: Dubbed “The Love Patrol,” Theresa and Montoya have cemented their commitment to policing by falling in love while remaining partners in the field. Viewed in light of so much international anger and frustration with police corruption, the bond shared by this couple — who we watch endure everything from street chases to awkward pillow talk — provides a fascinating contrast to the darker vision of law enforcement that pervades modern society.
All the while, however, the flaws of the system peek into the frame. In the movie’s riveting opening passage, Theresa delivers an infant child to a couple when the ambulance fails to arrive on time (viewers familiar with the documentary “Midnight Family” will know about Mexico City’s notorious ambulance shortage). As a vibrant, brassy score takes over, Theresa’s positioned as the sort of heroine who goes beyond the constraints of her job to do the right thing. But that kind of moralistic approach is ultimately unsustainable as the officers come to terms with the way the force has been designed to work against their good intentions. In one of the more surreal cutaways, Montoya stands at the center of a busy intersection, directing traffic with his shirt off. His job calls for some measure of authority, but he feels like a joke.
Rather than further developing this assessment, however, Ruizpalacios makes the bizarre choice of a Godardian interlude, by interrupting the story midway through in a fourth-wall-breaking chapter in which the actors share their experiences of preparing for these roles. As they undergo the intense rush of police academy, they question the nature of an institution designed to train officers in a tight six-month period before spitting them out on the streets. There’s some measure of intellectual intrigue to these musings, but it undoes the narrative momentum leading up to it, instead leading “A Cop Movie” into the navel-gazing turf of meta-fiction. There’s only so much to be gleaned from actors musing into iPhone video diaries about whether they actually want to go through with this project. They did, and the results were working just fine, so why are we doing this?
Perhaps sensing as much, Ruizpalacios directs the movie back to its original form for the gripping finale, when the fundamental impossibility of the Love Patrol’s happy routine finally comes to the surface. It’s a grim reality check that explains the overarching nature of the filmmaker’s approach, as he crafts a sensitive form of whistleblowing by giving it cinematic form and protects his subjects’ identities in the process. Ultimately, “A Cop Movie” wields its title as an open question: Police have been mythologized by the movies since their inception, but only a truly savvy one can find the truth of the profession alongside the energy that brings people into it in the first place.
“A Cop Movie” premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival. Netflix releases it later this year.
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