Police Beat isn't your typical cop movie, not by a long shot. There are no prolonged gun battles, no drawn out car chases. There is a drugged-out hooker, an abandoned baby, a cop heading down the path of self-destruction, and lots of bizarre crimes, but all these things are peripheral to the driving theme of the story: love.
Yes, you heard me right. Love. Not what one might expect from a movie called Police Beat, based on a column from an alternative newsweekly that chronicles the bizarrest of the bizarre crimes that happen in Seattle in any given week. Nonetheless, screenwriter Charles Mudede and director Robinson Devor have crafted a truly unique and artistic jewel, filmed amid over 100 locations in the emerald setting of Seattle. In Police Beat, the crimes themselves are little more than funhouse mirrors, reflecting the distraught state of the protagonist as he imagines his girlfriend's unfaithfulness.
The story focuses on an immigrant cop named Z, played with amazing authenticity by newcomer Pape S. Niang, who was literally plucked off a soccer field by producer Alexis Ferris after months of searching for the perfectly authentic lead for this perfectly off-beat film. As the story opens, Z's girlfriend, Rachel, is leaving for a camping trip with her roommate, Jeff. The rest of the movie revolves, mostly, around Z's agonized imaginings over what is really going on between his girlfriend and her roommate, as he is unable to reach her and she is gone longer than expected.
Through this lovesick suffering, Z performs his job as a Seattle bicycle cop who longs to be promoted to a patrol car. And no wonder, because, really, who in Seattle takes a cop on a bicycle seriously? Certainly not the street kids shooting up heroin on Broadway, or the hookers working downtown, or the schizophrenics engaged in heated arguments with imaginary companions.
The film was shot, as aforesaid, in over 100 locations, and it was somewhat distracting for me. Because I live in Seattle, I found myself constantly trying to figure out where any given scene was shot (oh, look! That's the UW Stadium in the background, I know where he is now! Hey, is that West Seattle? Now he's over in Carkeek Park? Isn't he getting tired from all that bicycling?)
I don't know how it really is for bicycle cops in Seattle, but I guess I always envisioned them being assigned to a particular "beat" or neighborhood, or at least somewhat discrete geographical area. Poor Z is bicycling and fighting crime all over the greater Seattle area. Z has a partner - I never thought of bicycle cops as having partners, but I suppose it comes in handy when one needs to stop off at Starbucks to grab a muffin and a latte - so someone can watch the bikes so they don't get stolen by the junkies.
The unique angle of this film, both its strength and its weakness, is that it's not really a cop story at all. It's a story about lovesickness, and jealousy, and the desperate tricks the mind plays on itself when jealousy, suspicion and cultural differences intersect at the crossroads of a relationship. All this is played out, almost distantly and distractedly, amidst a cacophony of crime scenes, all taken from real Seattle police files and Mudede's column, "Police Beat", published in the alternative paper The Stranger.
Mudede's column is known for its irreverant wit and tone. He frequently plays on the wording the beat cops use in their reports to make his column even more humorous, and he goes out of his way to find the strangest tales that lurk darkly beneath the surface of our gleaming city. Filmgoers who go to see Police Beat expecting to see Mudede's column more or less brought to life may leave disappointed; the freaky crimes are very peripheral to the story of Z and his heartache.
Those of a more artistic bent, however, will find much to like in this film. Niang has a great presence on screen, almost as if he's playing straight man to the bizarrity that surrounds him on his job. When he's confronted by an angry liberal bike rider who berates him for giving him a ticket, and the man goes off on a rant against President Bush, Z deadpans, "Wait a second. Are you saying to me you would kill the President of the United States of America?"
"You're damn right I would," Angry Liberal Guy responds. Z shakes his head sagely and proceeds to school the citizen on the chain of command, and his own place in it. Angry Liberal Guy is such a Seattle mainstay that one grows immune to his rantings; seeing the character from the perspective of a new citizen fresh off of citizenship classes, though, puts him in a new light.
There is a marked and deliberate contrast between the words Z speaks in halting English when interacting with his partner and the citizens he encounters on the job, and the more verbose language he uses in the voiceovers in his native tongue to express his inner thoughts to and about his girlfriend. It gives the viewer a sense of the subleties of language, and the difficulty immigrants face being able to fully assimiliate into their new environment, when Z types a phrase like "I then confronted the bully tree" in a report about an elderly woman who was "mugged" by a falling tree branch.
The cinematography is breathtakingly lush and spectacular, particularly when you take into account that this movie was filmed on a meager $170K budget. Devor takes full advantage of the natural beauty of his location, and Seattle never looked prettier. Even the freaks, weirdos and drug addicts have an ethereal Seattle-esque glow about them in this film.
Devor went out on a big limb in making a cop film that's the antithesis of cop films. No doubt there will be plenty of critics waiting to devour his sacrificial lamb, and Monday morning quarterbacks waiting to dissect his effort and bemoan how they would have used Devor's source material to make a different kind of film.
Judging Police Beat on its own merits, though, I have to say that overall I enjoyed the film. I like it when a director has the chutzpah to try something different, and really, do we need anymore blockbuster films with cops shooting off clever one-liners while killing the bad guys with guns blazing? Leave those kind of flicks to the John Woos of the world, and let guys like Devor keep pushing the cinematic envelope, making heartfelt, intelligent films that fire a direct hit at a particular audience, rather than a scatter shot at the masses.