I recently saw two films on video, hoping to find out what it takes to make a cop movie win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Having seen them, I find that the question has gained a new dimension, but remains unanswered.
VIDEO #1: “The Departed.” It just won the Oscar for best movie of 2006. It also snagged a Best Director statuette for the longsuffering (though not always deserving) Martin Scorsese. It is one of those “ensemble cast” films where nobody ends up looking very good, you sometimes wonder whether there are any good guys, and just when you think a character might be good he gets his brains blown out in what, amazingly, becomes a tedious pattern of cranial matter splatter.
After (pardon me for spoiling) Nicholson’s character gets his, the life goes out of the picture. Yet there are quite a few minutes to go. Then, after Leo (excuse me again) gets his, the movie seems cruelly pointless. The last character to make the jump from person to red stain on wall is Matt Damon (I'm only sorry that he was the last to go). His final words, while staring down the barrel of Mark Wahlberg’s gun, are: “O.K.” I’m trying to think of another movie that so completely goes off the rails and loses its way...but a comparable example doesn’t come to mind.
Martin Sheen also dies in this flick (he falls off a tall building and his corpse hits the ground so nearly within the frame that you see blood jumping out of it). But Alec Baldwin, God help us, lives (and he also gets the best line: “You are a cop, my son”). There is only one female character of any real significance; she sleeps with two characters who are trying to kill each other (neither of them knowing their connection through her), and then she breaks all movie conventions by living to tell about it. In compensation for her survival, I suppose, any number of other characters die, including at least one scene where the carnage aspires to the effect of farce.
VIDEO #2: “The French Connection.” It was also a Best Picture winner (1971), besides grabbing a Best Actor award for Gene Hackman, best adapted screenplay, directing, and film editing. You wouldn’t think, after winning all these important awards, that it would be such a lousy movie. I liked exactly one scene (you guessed it, the chase scene). Supposedly based on a real-life case featuring a couple of charismatic narcotics cops staking out an international heroin deal, you start out wondering what this movie did so well that it had to win Best Picture; you end up wondering how 1971 could have been such a bad year for Hollywood, that this boring, ultimately pointless, and often obnoxious movie got the big prize.
The film has a gritty (i.e., unattractive) look. The dialogue, at times, sounds improvised (i.e., you wish somebody would yell "Cut! Give the shmuck his line again!"). Its music is avante-garde (i.e., atrociously ugly, and—to risk sounding like Woody Allen of “the food is bad and the portions are too small”—not played very well). The cops turn out to be jerks and the bad guys pretty much get away; the movie finally peters out in a manner bizarrely similar to Hitchcock’s “Topaz” (another phenomenally bad movie). But when you get down to brass tacks, "The French Connection" has a very sexy chase scene involving an elevated railway and the road under it. And I must admit that Roy Scheider pulls a pretty interesting impression of an Italian cop. On the other hand, what on earth does “Did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” mean?