As I sat through the opening quarter of Officer Down, I assumed that my biggest obstacle would be overlooking its formulaic plot and stock characters. But as it played on, I gradually realized I would be facing much bigger problems. The further along it goes, the more convoluted and implausible it becomes, until finally it devolves into a tiresome and repetitive display of cop drama mechanics. This is not a malicious movie, but it is a mismanaged one. It’s structured in such a way that it repeatedly changes gears; just when we think we know what it will be about, it directs our attention to another storyline and ends up being about something else entirely. This happens more than once. By the time it was over, I knew that the mystery had been solved, but I no longer knew which plot points were vital and which were simply red herrings. The annoying thing is, I think the filmmakers believed they were being clever.
The central character is David Callahan (Stephen Dorff), a detective for the Bridgeport police. His story unfolds as a needlessly complicated series of twisting present-day events and out-of-sequence flashbacks. What we know right off the bat is that he’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who got sober after being shot in the line of duty and rescued by an anonymous good samaritan. As he sits in a bar, drinking a Diet Coke instead of the shot of booze directly next to his hand, he’s approached by a Russian man. He tells Callahan that his name is Sergei Dronov (Zoran Radanovich), and that he was the good samaritan. He’s finally presenting himself to Callahan not because he wants to be thanked, but because he needs a cop to take on an unofficial case, namely to track down and bring to justice the man who drove his daughter to suicide.
Dronov gives his daughter’s journal to Callahan. It entries, written in neat feminine swirls and scrawls, weave a heartbreaking tale of a young woman who just wanted to make something of herself for the sake of her immigrant parents, who sacrificed everything for her. To pay her way through college, she worked as a stripper – as it so happens, at the very same strip club Callahan used to frequent during his wayward days. She would ultimately be sexually assaulted by a man who merely seemed lonely and would draw pictures of her, and of other stippers, on cocktail napkins; apart from the trauma of the experience, she was racked with guilt over not reporting the incident and taking the steps towards never letting her attacker hurt another girl. She would end her life by slipping into a bathtub and overdosing on prescription pills.
The more Callahan investigates the case, the more apparent it becomes that all is not as it appears. This is true not only of Dronov’s daughter, but also of her alleged attacker, a man named Logue (Walton Goggins), of Royce Walker (Dominic Purcell), the man who owns the strip club, of Callahan’s precinct, and even of the night Callahan was shot and rescued. As he ventures forth, he’s bombarded by an entirely new series of personal and professional setbacks, all of which play into the film’s obvious theme of forgiveness and redemption. It is possible to sift through all the pieces of information thrown at us and formulate an explanation, but it takes a great deal of effort, more so than most audiences are able and/or willing to make. Even if an effort is made, one may find that the sequence of events and subsequent revelations are far too manufactured for the film’s own good. At a certain point, it becomes less about narrative and more about machinery – about finding ways to keep the film as unpredictable and dramatic as possible.
Whatever problems this movie has, the actors cannot be blamed for them. They’re doing nothing more or less than what the screenplay requires of them, and they do it quite well. This is true even of the more overt stereotyped roles. This would include the loathsome police captain with the hidden agenda (James Woods), the wiseass detective with an attitude problem (David Boreanaz), and the good-hearted priest with an Irish brogue (Tommy Flanagan), who isn’t given anything to do besides say comforting things to Callahan during times of deep introspection. And there is something pathetically authentic about Dorff’s performance, even though it is at the mercy of the plot. He most certainly looks like a cop who has seen better days; with his unkempt hair, his unshaven face, and his faded, crumpled clothing that fits him loosely, he looks like a man on the brink of losing everything.
The most satisfying scenes actually have nothing to do with the case. They involve Callahan and his relationship with his wife (Elisabeth Röhm) and teenage daughter (Beatrice Miller), the latter being surprisingly realistic; one minute she rolling her eyes at her father for being such a dad, the next minute she hesitantly tries to get his advice, and the minute after that she screams at him for his overprotectiveness. So let it not be said that there aren’t bright spots in Officer Down. The film is obviously well intentioned. Nevertheless, it’s too awkwardly structured, and both plot and character are eventually sacrificed in favor of expected cop drama conventions, not the least of which is the shootout during the final act. The single most unexplainable components are title cards projected on the screen right before the end credits, which summarizes the fates of certain characters. This is typically done only in biopics or historical dramas. Why does director Brian A. Miller want us to believe his film is based on a true story?