Despite its simple title, Mexican filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios’ latest feature is far from a simple shoot-’em-up cop movie. It’s more like a cop movie written by Jacques Derrida, directed with nods to Wes Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard and then remixed by Abbas Kiarostami in its efforts to tear down the fourth wall.
Which is to say that this Berlinale competition premiere is not exactly a commercial venture, nor does it resemble the kinds of policiers that Netflix, which will release the film online, usually places at the top of your viewing queue. But it’s nonetheless an intriguing, completely deconstructed look at what it takes to both be a cop and to play one, especially in a place where cops are often regarded as criminals themselves.
Filled with style and wit, though lacking a narrative backbone to lure big audiences, this meta-docu-fiction further proves that Ruizpalacios (Gueros, Museo) is one of Mexico’s most inventive young auteurs, even if he’s yet to achieve renown outside of his homeland or the festival circuit. Worldwide streaming should garner him a little more attention.
The film’s playful Spanish-language title, Una película de policías, is closer to the heart of this third feature, which was co-written by David Gaitán: It’s a movie about cops with actors pretending to be cops, physically training to be cops, discussing what it means to be training to be cops, until it shifts to scenes of a few actual cops playing themselves.
The Jedi mind tricks that Ruizpalacios unleashes on us can be a bit exasperating. Yet he manages to spin it all into a commentary about Mexican law enforcement and how dimly the institution is viewed by the public, who see it as a corrupt body incapable of enforcing the law — something that’s been made quite clear in recent TV series like ZeroZeroZero and Narcos (the latter’s second season featured a few episodes directed by Ruizpalacios).
From the very start, the filmmaker toys with our expectations. Through the POV of a windshield, in a shot meant to resemble a dashboard cam, a patrol car snakes down the eerily quiet streets of Mexico City. A voiceover is mixed with radio chatter as we follow Teresa (Mónica Del Carmen), who arrives at what could very well be an ambush, especially when a bystander reaches for what appears to be gun. Instead, it turns out there’s a woman about to give birth with no ambulance in sight, forcing Teresa to deliver the baby herself. What looked like the beginning of a harrowing action sequence is in reality the opposite: a scene of a good cop doing a good thing.
Not that there are only good cops on display here — the bad ones will come later on when we learn what happened to Teresa and her professional-private partner, Montoya (Raúl Briones), with regards to their long-term careers. It turns out both of them grew up with blue blood in their veins — in Teresa’s case it was her dad, whose old-school machismo made him reject his daughter’s desire to become a cop as well; in Montoya’s case it was an older brother — and both went into policing with the vague hope of serving justice. After a pair of failed relationships, they met while on the job and quickly fell for one another, earning the nickname “the love patrol” from their fellow officers.
Divided into five chapters, each of them adding another layer of distancing to reveal the film in the making, A Cop Movie begins like a somewhat regular, if offbeat, narrative and then gradually unravels into a hybrid where the thin blue line separating cop fiction from reality begins to seriously blur. Soon we’re watching actors Del Carmen and Briones undergo Mexican police boot camp as part of their prep, commenting on their fellow cadets and voicing their grievances directly to the camera. “Why the hell did I agree to this fucking movie?” Briones exclaims at some point, although it’s hard to tell if he really means it or is just acting out Ruizpalacious’ meta-fictional discourse.
Some of the training scenes were shot by the actors on iPhones, while most of the film was lensed in anamorphic widescreen by Emiliano Villanueva (The Zone), whose carefully rendered Wes Anderson-esque tableaux are undercut by moments when the cast members gaze straight into the camera. As in his previous features, especially the very Breathless-style Gueros, Ruizpalacious seems as much, if not more, interested in form than content, turning each sequence into a stylistic feat. Above all he masters a certain kind of tone that’s half serious and half sly, constantly reminding us of the movie we’re watching — a fact that may turn away viewers who like their cop flicks lean and mean, but attract those who wish to partake in all of the Godardian exercises.
Adding to the wink-wink texture is a soundtrack filled with cuts by the great Argentine caper composer Lalo Schiffrin (famous for the theme from Mission: Impossible), including pieces from René Clément’s Joy House, the obscure surfer film Gone with the Wave and the original The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series.
The music carries A Cop Movie into the realm of pure cinephilia, even if Ruizpalacios keeps trying to return to the more pertinent themes at hand, mainly the ongoing public distrust of the Mexican police, as well our distrust of the images depicting them. It’s a tricky balancing act that he manages to pull off rather convincingly, although the overall effect is less eye-opening than curiosity-provoking — like watching an episode of Live PD from the front row of the Cinémathèque Française.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: No Ficción
Cast: Mónica Del Carmen, Raúl Briones
Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Screenwriters: Alonso Ruizpalacios, David Gaitán
Producers: Daniela Alatorre, Elena Fortes
Director of photography: Emiliano Villanueva
Production designer: Julieta Álvarez Icaza
Costume designer: Ximena Barbachano de Agüero
Editor: Yibrán Asuad
Casting director: Bernardo Velasco