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"Show" Business

 

Showtime

Tom Dey, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.1

 

 

Posted: March 17, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Not surprisingly, critical pens have not been kind to Showtime, Tom Dey's decidedly high-concept take on the belabored buddy-cop film. This is mostly because, for some reason, reviewers for media outlets like CNN.com have gone into the film expecting a satirical deconstruction of the genre. That's clearly a bit much to ask of an action thriller that boasts Eddie Murphy as one of its stars, and such a mindset all but guarantees disappointment.

Because while Showtime's post-modernist conceit does invite exploration of the genre, it's to the film's credit that it does so with a wink and with a refreshing lack of bite-the-hand-that-feeds-me condemnation. Showtime never loses sight of its principal role as a featherweight action film, which is both its blessing and, to a lesser extent, its curse.

The premise is simple enough: Veteran police detective Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) is a taciturn loner, a blue-collar Everycop, forced to pair with Trey Sellars (Murphy), an overly-ambitious patrolman and aspiring actor given to catch phrases and show-bizzy nicknames (referring to himself as "Ice Trey"). This unlikely duo crosses paths when Preston, on the verge of busting a couple of two-bit drug dealers, sees his bust go up in smoke thanks to a cavalcade of media helicopters that have picked up a call for backup from Sellars, who spots Preston looking suspicious and is unaware that he's a cop.

In the ensuing mayhem, one of the crooks (critic's darling rapper Mos Def, going against type as a run-of-the-mill street thug) gets away, equipped with a disturbingly large handgun loaded with armor-piercing, bulletproof vest-proof rounds. Preston, attempting to give pursuit, angrily shoots a news camera that gets in his way. This brings him to the attention of television producer Chase Renzi (Rene Russo), who brokers a deal with the local police: Her network won't press charges against Preston and the department, providing Preston stars in a reality program that will follow him around, recording his exploits -- basically, COPS on steroids. Against Preston's objections, he's partnered with Sellars, who's all too willing to play to the cameras (and "bring in the urban audience"). Still, he soldiers on, looking to find the maker of this uber-weapon before it finds its way into mass production and the hands of criminals everywhere.

For the first hour of its surprisingly fleet 92-minute running time, Showtime deftly milks its premise for high amusement value. De Niro gives good grizzled reluctance as the put-upon Preston, who simply wants to do his job without media interference, and objects constantly to Renzi's many impositions on his routine (including spritzing up his "work area" into a sleek, high-tech looking cocoon and remodeling his apartment without his knowledge). Russo never oversteps her role, neither descending into shrill anti-Hollywood character nor glossing over Renzi's opportunistic attempts to make her reality series more showbiz-friendly. The high point comes when she brings in William Shatner (playing himself) to coach the reluctant partners on how to play to the camera and jump across the hood of a car.

But it's Murphy who surprises with a supple performance. In his hands, Sellars avoids one-note shtick: He's a decent cop with good instincts and a yen to make detective, as well as a struggling actor (with one bit part on Diagnosis: Murder to his credit) given to painful over-emoting. On the job with Preston, Sellars takes every opportunity to ham it up, at one point breaking into an impromptu cornball speech about the deceased uncle who inspired him to take up police work in a calculated attempt at male bonding for the camera. But his often embarrassing showboating works: Even when he's coming off as clueless in front of other cops, his grandstanding plays well on camera, making him look dynamic compared to Preston's leaden disinterest.

The odd couple of Preston and Sellars makes a couple of false moves, notably breaking into a wildly unprofessional and unwarranted fistfight in a nightclub owned by their prime suspect Vargas (played with oily panache by Pedro Damian). But when the partners really veer into implausible Lethal Weapon territory (in a bang-'em-up car chase involving a garbage truck and Renzi's production van), the film sharply swings back to the real world: Preston's beleaguered captain (Frankie Faison) dissolves the partnership and angrily dresses down the duo for allowing things to get out of hand. Showtime, the series (inspired by Sellars' self-coined catchphrase), is forced to find two new cops, and Preston finally warms to his ex-partner after watching Sellars stand up for him on television.

So far, so decent. But it's here where Showtime falls from grace. The last half-hour is stunningly predictable and not a little puzzling. There's a huge plot hole, of interest only to hardcore continuity cops, wherein Preston recognizes a colleague, a forensic scientist, in the background at Vargas' nightclub while watching the show...just minutes after watching himself and Sellars get thrown off the case. (Why the program would display these events out of order, showing the cops get booted before showing them investigating the case, is maddeningly unclear.) And the final scenes deliver a whimper of a climax, a far cry from the slam-bang climax one expects from the genre (it's not until the credits start rolling that this writer wondered "Wait, is that really the end?").

It's hard not to expect slightly more from Showtime. Aside from the big-name cast, the film boasts some impressive behind-the-camera talent as well: Dey directed Shanghai Noon, while Will Smith is an executive producer and the screenplay was co-written in part by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (currently creators and executive producers of the WB's hit series Smallville). But it's also hard to fault the film too much. Showtime does lose sight of its cleverness in the final third, devolving into just another action film, and not a super-competent one at that. But even when it's clicking in that first hour, it never pretends to be anything more than just a cute buddy film, the puzzling expectations of highfalutin' media types looking for substantive satire aside.

 
More Cops and Cameras
Showtime isn't the only cop film to explore the relationship between action films and the media. For a slightly more substantial take, check out 15 Minutes, with De Niro and Edward Burns on the trail of a couple of camcorder-toting bad guys who film their outrageous exploits in hopes of TV news immortality. On a frothier note, The Hard Way explores terrain not too dissimilar to Showtime, with James Woods playing another hard-bitten loner cop forced to ride around with a big-time movie star (Michael J. Fox).

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