Why is Hollywood calling the police?
Filmmaker Ron Shelton, who has no fewer than three cop-themed films headed for theaters this year, says the contemporary movie industry turns to police not for blockbuster potential or from some cultural urge, but simply as an easy format for telling almost any kind of story.
"Audiences are comfortable going to a cop movie, just the way they used to go to westerns," he said during an interview.
Reached in a production office while most of the film industry vacationed last week, the 57-year-old writer-director of "Hollywood Homicide" was scurrying to finish the film, starring Harrison Ford, for Revolution Studios and distributor Sony Pictures Entertainment. At the same time, he was preparing for the February opening of "Dark Blue" with actor Kurt Russell, which he directed. It was produced by Intermedia Film Equities and others for distribution by MGM Inc.
If that weren't police work enough for one year, Shelton also was among the writers on "Bad Boys 2," in which Will Smith and Martin Lawrence play a pair of Miami cops, for Sony. The film is scheduled for release in July.
The confluence is particularly unusual, given that Shelton is best known for his sports-themed hits "Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump" and "Tin Cup." But the distinction between police officers and athletes, the filmmaker insisted, is more apparent than real.
"I don't think cop movies are a lot different," Shelton said. "It's a lot of alpha males running around. They have miserable private lives. They drink too much. It's the same."
"Dark Blue," Shelton's hard-edged drama about bad cops and racial politics, chronicles a five-day period during the Rodney King beating trial and subsequent riots. According to the director, it cost just $15 million to make and is intended to play more like a sophisticated independent film than a big studio production.
Based on a James Ellroy story, "Dark Blue" is brutally direct in portraying both the 1991 King beating and later mayhem in the streets of Los Angeles. Asked whether he believed local audiences are ready to revisit the incident, Shelton said, "We'll find out."
"Hollywood Homicide," in contrast, is a big-budget comedy with a roster of rap stars and enough good cops to have secured cooperation during filming from the Los Angeles Police Department -- which shunned "Dark Blue."
Pressed for a reason that might account for Hollywood's sudden cluster of largely Los Angeles-based cop films, Shelton said he would like to think they represent an artists' rebellion against corporate pressure to shoot pictures in cheap foreign locations.
"Look, I have never gone to Canada to shoot," said Shelton. "I consider it a point of honor and pride to shoot here, and a lot of people are trying to figure out how to make movies here. With the LAPD, you have a built-in subject and characters and story."
Shelton, the realist, quickly added, however: "Or maybe it's just an accident."
Still, David Ayer, who wrote "Dark Blue" and also was among the writers of Sony's "S.W.A.T.," another LAPD film set for August release, is inclined to see a marketplace rationale behind the rush of police material.
"Executives green-light movies based on what's been successful the year before. They do what works until it doesn't work," Ayer said.
By Ayer's account, studio thinking may be linked less to feature film precedents than to television series such as "Law & Order," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and others that have trained millions of viewers to relish cop stories.
The Ayer-written film "Training Day" also made the police genre more alluring for executives when, in 2001, the relatively inexpensive picture collected $76 million at the U.S. box office for AOL Time Warner's Warner Bros. unit. More surprising, the dramatic thriller won an Oscar for leading man Denzel Washington and an Academy Award nomination for supporting actor Ethan Hawke.
" 'Training Day' was a weird fish," said Ayer. "These things aren't supposed to get critical attention and awards."
According to both Ayer and Shelton, Hollywood stumbles into many of its trends by something less than conscious design. This year's cop cluster, they noted, came together partly because MGM delayed the release of "Dark Blue," shot in 2001, to keep it from getting crushed by last year's bumper crop of blockbuster fantasies and sequels.
"I wish I had a better answer for why they're all out there now," Shelton said of the police films.
"You know, when I was doing 'Bull Durham,' there were all sorts of baseball movies in the air. And none of them came out."