After the death of George Floyd last year, there was much discussion in media circles about the phenomenon known as "copaganda" - those movies and TV shows, often produced with significant police input, by which the powers-that-be have traditionally shored up public confidence in an institution a growing number would like to see reorganised and/or defunded. Certain creatives used the pandemic to rethink their relationship to the police: the last season of the beloved sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine was reportedly restructured to reflect a general anxiety about its central situation. Others have carried on regardless: Bollywood's big Diwali 2021 release, Sooryavanshi, features Akshay Kumar and Ranveer Singh as all-singing, all-dancing supercops. The new release A Cop Movie doesn't pretend to have all the answers - it's a 100-minute film that's just been diverted to Netflix after premiering in Berlin earlier this year - but it's wrestling with the policier form in a way that proves equal parts illuminating and provocative; it does feel innately post-Floyd.
Following the newly added credit "A Netflix Documentary", it opens with fly-on-the-wall footage immediately redolent of TV's Cops: we watch Teresa, a uniformed patrol officer in Mexico City, being called out to attend a scene of domestic unrest that turns out to involve a premature birth. As she subsequently sets about her nightly rounds - the traffic stops, the timeouts for fast food, the natural breaks in filthy gas-station restrooms - you might, however, start to think something's ever so slightly amiss. The widescreen framing is too considered for authentic fly-on-the-wall, the camera movements too rehearsed. Teresa's mouth doesn't quite synch with the words coming out of it. Hardcore cinephiles will already have spotted that Teresa is being played by Mónica Del Carmen, quietly unforgettable as the human punchbag of 2010's non-romcom Leap Year. Sooner or later, a penny (or dime) drops: yet again, we're being led up the garden path by somebody posing as an officer of the law. The questions being posed of the police are, after all, questions of trust first and foremost.
Once you're handed absolute power of arbitration, what do you do with it? Calling the shots here is Alonso Ruizpalacios, whose 2014 film Güeros numbered among the sprightliest New Wave homages of recent years, and who went on to make 2018's cockeyed heist movie Museum with Gael García Bernal. Playfulness and flexibility are the watchwords of this emergent filmography: A Cop Movie will eventually earn that documentary tag, but it's one of those docs with a supplementary layer of creative flourish. Its initial technique would be comparable to Clio Barnard's groundbreaking The Arbor, where performers were hired to lipsynch to testimony previously set down on tape by those who'd lived it (a novelty that recalled the plasticine zoo animals of Nick Park's Creature Comforts shorts). Yet The Arbor was An Art Movie, somewhat static in its approach: its detailed tableaux allowed us first to grasp, then to admire such a technique, and that technique remained constant from first frame to last. A Cop Movie is busier; indeed, it'll take a couple of viewings to fully parse.
For starters, there are a lot of words, a free-roaming testimony that staves off any obvious copaganda by having Teresa and her partner Montoya (embodied by Raúl Briones) admit early on that there are those who take up this job because of the opportunities it presents to get away with anything on the statute book. Right from the funky, Sixties-style opening credits, there are a lot of images, too - enough to make one wonder whether Ruizpalacios was consciously setting up a turf war within the film itself. On one hand, there are the heightened, sheeny, seductive visuals we've come to expect from our cop movies: the shootouts, the foot pursuits, the love scene that reveals Teresa and Montoya as off-the-clock partners, too. On the other, there are the interviewees' shrugging, grounded anecdotes. Together, they make up a pretty comprehensive picture of the average Mexican beat cop's life. Yes, sometimes there's a helter-skelter pursuit through the underground. Mostly, though, it's sitting in a panda car moaning about the number of onions on your hot dog. Ruizpalacios certainly isn't trumping this life up; he always has some means of undercutting it.
Not least via a clear and decisive break around the film's halfway mark. Suddenly we're watching a making-of of everything we've just seen, composed chiefly of video diaries the actors recorded - their own testimony - as they negotiated the 100 days of training required to play their parts. This is more obviously the documentary those opening credits promised, although inevitably it will prompt the question of whether or not del Carmen and Briones are still acting. I think not: while they broadly display the ease of actors before the camera - they're effectively self-taping at this point, and you suspect there would have been many more hours of footage available to Ruizpalacios - the responsibility they bear witness to is too great to be readily faked. Briones, who gives the impression of being very much of the ACAB Left, confesses he was drawn to this project precisely because of the professional challenge it posed: to walk a mile or so in boots he couldn't ever imagine himself wearing in other circumstances. There's some telling footage of del Carmen at the firing range, proving unable to discharge her weapon. As the real beat cop partnering her later jokes, "You seem like you wouldn't break a dish. You don't seem to have the personality required to be a cop."
Here, perhaps, A Cop Movie takes a toe or two off the thin blue line it's been so adroitly patrolling, and wobbles in the direction of copaganda: the inference could be that this job is harder than it looks - you should try it sometime. Equally, though, isn't there something revealing (even disturbing) about that beat cop's jokey aside? Do we really want our police to be trigger-happy dishsmashers, state-sanctioned agents of destruction? What's crucial is Ruizpalacios's evenhanded framing - an evenhandedness you might want of any lawman. The actors' video diaries are afforded the same editorial weight as the fictional scenes of the first hour, the photographs stitched into the opening credits (which show cops at their best and worst) and a final round of testimony from the actual Teresa and Montoya that comes so close to whistleblowing you wonder how wise it was for them to show their faces on camera. Mixing and matching as he goes, nimbly dodging accusations of bias at every stage, and finally leaving his audience with a question ("What do you think?"), A Cop Movie is the film that confirms Ruizpalacios as the most Godardian of contemporary directors. The bonus for us is that it's the fun Godard - the imagemaker who was still very much a part of this world, and who took matters of film form in his stride.
A Cop Movie is now streaming on Netflix.