Monday, 9 January 2012

THE NEW CENTURIONS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Richard Fleischer's screen adaptation of former LAPD cop Joseph Wambaugh's first bestselling novel delivers a dramatic, but realistic front-lines approach to a world that most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine.

The New Centurions (1972) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: George C. Scott, Stacy Keach, Jane Alexander, Clifton James, Scott Wilson, Erik Estrada, Rosalind Cash, Isabel Sanford, James Sikking and William Atherton


Review By Greg Klymkiw

It’s always a pleasure to extol the considerable virtues of Richard Fleischer, one of the most overlooked and underrated American directors, even when the picture in question is not one of his best works. The New Centurions is a movie that, at least for me, plops squarely into the category of work I loved as a kid that hasn't held up as well as I’d hoped. That said, it has much to recommend it – most notably, a great George C. Scott performance and a generally fine first two-thirds. If there are major problems with the film, they probably lie with Stirling Silliphant’s erratic screenplay adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s groundbreaking, best-selling novel.

Wambaugh is, of course, the former LAPD cop-turned-novelist whose books captured the day-to-day grind of police life sans shoot-em-up glorification – a dramatic, but realistic front-lines approach to a world that most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine. Fleischer’s movie version, from a directorial standpoint, often does an excellent job in this respect. Taking us from the graduation of rookie cop Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach) and his on-the-job training under the tutelage of grand, old man of the force; the wizened, cynical Andy Kilvinski (George C. Scott), a good part of this journey offers considerable entertainment value. With the dark grainy lighting and camerawork of Ralph Woolsey, Fleischer gets us through the nightly grind of patrol cops in an almost documentary-like flavour.

For the most part, this is no standard-issue genre fare as we follow the cops on a series of almost mundane adventures – domestic disputes, child abuse cases, petty theft, grifting and in one of the movie’s more amusing segments, the rounding up of streetwalkers, shoving them into the back of a paddy wagon and getting them boozed up so they can’t ply their trade. The film also focuses on the cops’ bouts with alcoholism and marital strife. All of this is peppered with George C. Scott's Kilvinski who regales his rookie charge with all manner of crusty wisdom and gallows humour.

For 1972, this was certainly groundbreaking material.

My first helping of the picture was at the tender age of 12 and I saw it with my ex-cop Dad. As a movie, it was definitely unlike the usual father-and-son fare in the de-glamorization of the cops’ lives and I also recall my own father responding very positively to the movie in that it had “less bullshit” than other cop pictures. Seen now, though, it’s a movie that scores points for being the first of its kind in the mainstream, but alas, loses considerable steam as Silliphant’s script maintains the episodic structure of Wambaugh’s book without finding a compelling enough backbone to hang it on cinematically. The script also adds, all on its lonesome, clunky and clichéd verbiage in strange contrast to the dialogue that crackles as well as plot elements that feel too stock.

This seems especially odd since Silliphant did such a fine job adapting the classic cop novel on which Norman Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night is based. With that film, Silliphant was able to deftly sift the best and most cinematic elements in the original source material by John Ball, while adding the proper connective tissue to make the picture a cohesive whole. The New Centurions by comparison is messy, lurching from one episode to another and never quite capturing the sense of time passing in a smooth manner.

There are other problems with the picture. When the character of Kilvinski tragically departs from the story, the rest of the movie can’t quite rise to Scott’s level of performance and his presence, or lack thereof in the latter third. Scott's rendering of this character is so powerful it almost seems like movie’s only raison d'être.

Alas, the marital difficulties portrayed border on soap opera. It's bad melodrama, pure and simple. It doesn’t help that actress Jane Alexander portrays Stacy Keach’s wife with such ramrod-like seriousness that she comes off like a harridan on lithium. Equally unexceptional is a subplot involving the gorgeous Rosalind Cash as Keach's fresh love interest. In theory, both of these SEEM necessary, but feel shoehorned in to the proceedings rather than flowing naturally from them.

Even more bothersome is the rather interesting cast of supporting characters who are introduced, then dropped, with no visible effort to fully integrate them into the whole. Part or this is definitely a script issue, but in fairness to Siliphant, this and some of the other structural failings could well be coming from studio-imposed cuts to bring the movie closer to traditional cops n' robbers fare. (There is even a well directed, but completely out of place car stunt that feels like it belongs to another movie.)

All this said, though, Fleischer keeps the action moving with his typical efficiency and he works overtime to deliver a sense of the streets and the day-to-day aspects of police work. Some of the banter of the cops themselves (both on patrol and in the station house is gorgeously rendered. There are individual scenes and sequences that soar in spite of the screenplay's flawed structure. Some are simply unforgettable.

Scott’s rendition of “Kilvinski’s Law”, the character’s off-the-book sage advice, is a marvel to behold. Nobody but Scott could do full justice to nuggets like: "Treat everybody the same - white, black, brown. Be civil to everybody, courteous to no one. We're supposed to use equal force. If a dude uses his fists, you use your stick. If he uses a knife, you use your gun - cancel his ticket right then and there. If everything else fails, hit him with a brick."

Other fine moments include a terrifying scene where the cops rescue a baby from being burned and beaten by its neglectful mother, an especially hilarious sequence involving the entrapment of a seven-foot lumberjack “fruit” seeking manly amore in a local park and George C. Scott’s final monologue which is not only heartbreakingly performed, but one of the few moments that achieves what the whole movie aspires to.

Besides, where else is one going to see Mrs. Jefferson herself (Isabel Sanford) playing a foul-mouthed, fat-assed, soul-infused street whore? That gal definitely was “a movin’ on up”.

Oh, and have I mentioned the movie has one major-league groovy Quincy Jones score?

“The New Centurions” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures in their Martini Movies series.