The Film: One Good Cop (1991)
The Principals: Michael Keaton, Rene Russo, Anthony LaPaglia, Kevin Conway, Tony Plana, Rachel Ticotin, Benjamin Bratt. Written and directed by Heywood Gould.
The Premise: Ethical New York detective Artie Lewis (Keaton) is downtrodden by the death of his partner and best friend Stevie (LaPaglia) in the line of duty. When Artie and his wife, Rita (Russo) face the wrath of social workers in trying to adopt Stevie’s three daughters, they’re in need of a house that their income can’t afford. Why not shake down the drug lord (Plana) connected to Stevie’s murder? Because whether it’s for the enforcement of the law or the love of family, Artie Lewis is One Good Cop.
Is It Good? From writer-director Heywood Gould’s written and visual embodiment of the film to the simplistic title, One Good Cop has all the ingredients for a spectacular TV movie (well, maybe not spectacular, but you know what I mean). It wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of sentimentality, there’s plenty of moments of excitement with regards to action. We are reminded ad nauseum that Artie Lewis is One Good Cop because he loves his wife. He runs to his slain partner’s daughters with his arms wide open. He is committed to serve and protect the public from danger. Those expecting that Michael Keaton is going to be making Batman looking like a pussy and compiling a mile-high body count will be disappointed to see what he does as One Good Cop. He’s literally One Good Cop—honest, loving, and by-the-books, like the film itself. At one moment, the priority seems to be the dramatic beats, yet the kids’ grief and the Lewises’ unexpected brush with parenting seems to tack a backseat to the low-key but violent action sequences. It’s an uneven cinematic experience, but an earnest one.
Had Michael Keaton not been playing the lead role here, One Good Cop would have most likely been a wash of a film. Coming off of Batman and his great against-type turn in Pacific Heights, Keaton exhibits the same brand of likability and cocksure but lighthearted spirit that made him a star in the first place. Artie isn’t played as gruff or hardboiled in the slightest; he’s an Everyman in appearance and ideals, a logical guy with an admirable grasp on normalcy. The character arc is one of challenging his motivation to be One Good Cop and be put through a situation that may make him an opportunistic, anti-Robin Hood in the process, rendering him One Bad Cop.
Morality is the concept on Gould’s brain throughout, and based on that, the emotion of Keaton’s chemistry with Rene Russo and Anthony LaPaglia feels organic, even if the plot comes across as threadbare. It’s a smaller piece than one would expect, yet the factor of its value comes down to Keaton’s charisma, something that acts as a nice counterbalance between the alternating moments of heartfelt family drama and off-guard brutality.
Is It Worth a Look? If you’re a die-hard Michael Keaton fan, then this is essential viewing to see him make what is arguably the closest film he’s ever made to an action movie. Otherwise, I would say my recommendation is middle of the road—oh, who the hell am I kidding? There’s all these moments of drama and Keaton and Russo trying to reach out to these girls, and then out of nowhere, the movie climaxes like the final shootout of 21 Jump Street. Wild tonal shifts are always worth watching.
Random Anecdotes: Surprisingly, not a lot of fun factoids are to be had about this one, but it was released in some parts of Europe—including the UK—as One Man’s Justice, which I really only acknowledge as the insane Brian Bosworth 90’s spectacle.
Watching this, I found the initial reaction of the girls to their father’s death quite hard-hitting in that I lost my father at the age of six. There’s dialogue about how many of the memories of grief will go away, and it is certainly true. However, I will say without any apprehension—18 years later, the hole in my heart is still there.
Cinematic Soulmates: Gung Ho, Clean and Sober, Serpico