The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, July 1, 2013

The New Centurions

Police movies seem to be about a dime a dozen these days. I just reviewed a few recently, from End of Watch to Bullitt, Crime Wave to The Offence and many more. I'd wager a majority of those films are about the detectives, the supervisors, the special investigators. On the other hand, it is the beat cops who usually play supporting roles. Well, not always (End of Watch is another exception). They get their shot at the spotlight in 1972's The New Centurions.

Fresh out of the police academy, Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach) and a new batch or rookies are assigned to precincts and departments across Los Angeles. A hopeful law student with a wife and daughter, Roy has become a cop in hopes of making some money and learning the business while studying for his law degree. He is paired with veteran beat cop Andy Silvinski (George C. Scott), a police officer who's seen everything good and bad the streets have to offer. They bond immediately and become fast friends, the veteran introducing the rookie to the ins and outs of the job, teaching how to handle anything that might present itself. As he gets used to the job though, Roy starts to realize he likes doing it, and that it's not just a job. His wife, Dorothy (Jane Alexander), wants him to leave the force, but he may be in too deep at this point. What to decide on? Your career or your family?

My above comment about police movies being a dime a dozen is not intended as a dig or insult. I very much like all those movies. Naturally, I was more than a little surprised then when I found this film from director Richard Fleischer at Netflix having heard absolutely nothing about it....ever. In an era when everyone and their mother was making police movies -- Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Branningan among many others -- it's refreshing to see one that isn't interested in the high profile cases, the so-called 'glamour' of the position. 'Centurions' focuses almost solely on the beat cops, their day-to-day jobs around the department, on patrol and in the streets, and most importantly in Roy's case, how the job affects all the other aspects of life. It's better because it is a more personal story, nothing big picture about the scandal/corruption in the force or a major case that leads the news every night.

On that personal level, the story leans toward the episodic and for the better. A movie that runs about 103 minutes covers a lot of ground, following Roy from his rookie days to his reassignment on the force to his return to the department where he started. It never feels rushed, but the story does keep moving and jumping from incident to incident. These scenes know when to cut things off, laying things out, showing us what's happening and then moves on, never overstaying their welcome. The best moments are Roy, Andy and the other departmental officers on night patrol, dealing with thieves and hookers to domestic disturbances and drunks. At times, things get a little too sunshine happy (an incident with six or seven hookers comes to mind), and composer Quincy Jones' score is a tad too 1970s funky at times, but for the most part, the positives are there. 

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, buddy cop movies were everywhere, usually pairing a goofball newbie with a chiseled, no-nonsense veteran. Obviously, that's not the case here. I love the easy-going dynamic between Keach and Scott in every one of their scenes. Their dialogue never feels forced, their friendship anything but fake. It's natural throughout. On the force, we also meet veteran officers Clifton James and Ed Lauter to pair with a couple of newbies, Scott Wilson and a pre-CHIPs Erik EstradaJames Sikking plays a glory-hunting Vice squad officer as well.

I had an inkling where the story was going here, but I wasn't quite sure. As good as Scott is as the veteran cop, the focus is on Keach, and he doesn't disappoint. We see his struggles at home with his wife and later how he meets another woman, Lorrie (Rosalind Cash), a nurse who once patched him up following a shooting. Realistic throughout, the story takes a dark turn -- not surprisingly -- in the final act. The ending is quick, brutal and highly effective. It's a hidden gem among the cop genre, one that has that early 70s charm with a good cast and a not so typical story in a familiar genre. Well worth seeking out.

The New Centurions (1972): ***/****

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