Judge Ben Saylor has got more soul than he can con-trol.
Officer Kilvinski (looking at framed portraits of police officers): Killed
in the line of duty. It doesn't pay to get too comfortable in the street.
Spoilers to follow
Joseph Wambaugh's first novel, The New Centurions, was written and published while the author was still a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. And while Wambaugh would eventually quit the LAPD to write full time, the world of law enforcement has never been far from his mind; his latest work, Hollywood Crows, was published in March of this year. The New Centurions, in addition to being Wambaugh's first book, was also his first work to be filmed; subsequent adaptations have included the Emmy-winning miniseries The Blue Knight and the critically panned The Choirboys.
Wambaugh's debut novel is a chronicle of the ups and downs of three LAPD rookies: Serge Duran, Gus Plebesly, and Roy Fehler. Much like James Ellroy's masterpiece, L.A. Confidential, the book dedicates alternating chapters to each cop, meaning there is no one central character. For the film version, perhaps inevitably (Wambaugh's book has enough material and scope for a miniseries) the focus is trained on Fehler (Stacy Keach, Honeydripper), an idealistic young man who has an increasingly difficult time coping with the demands of being a cop. Duran (Erik Estrada of CHiPs fame) is given only a few scenes, as is Plebesly (Scott Wilson, Junebug), although screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure) retains the book's closing scene, which reunites the three cops, who were all classmates at the academy.
While Silliphant's script preserves some of the dialogue and events of Wambaugh's undeniably powerful novel, The New Centurions is a largely unremarkable film. I understand the narrative necessity for focusing on one character for the film, but in doing so, Silliphant doesn't seem to know what to do with the other characters. Duran gets a semi-humorous scene with partner Whitey (Clifton James, who played another, much more annoying officer of the law in Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) and little else. Plebesly, however, fares much worse. Early on in the film, his character accidentally kills an armed citizen who was pursuing a robber. Despite Plebesly's apparent distress over the incident, Silliphant's screenplay leaves little time for the officer to agonize over the citizen, and, upon watching subsequent scenes with Plebesly, it's impossible to tell that anything so traumatic had happened.
Unfortunately, the scenes with Fehler, which constitute the bulk of the film, fare little better. The "rookie being mentored by wise veteran" storytelling thread is certainly nothing new, and it's something Wambaugh largely avoids in the novel. That being said, I have to admit that some of the most effective scenes in the film are the ones where Fehler is on patrol with his mentor, Kilvinski (George C. Scott, Patton). It's a great role for Scott, and the actor is perfect in it, giving Kilvinski a sense of humor but also a great sadness, especially when he retires from the force and discovers that he gave so much of himself to the Job that there's nothing left for him.
Unfortunately, the movie keeps coming back to Fehler. The character's escalating troubles are depicted in a rather by-the-numbers fashion that feels more perfunctory than anything; there's the scene where Fehler and his wife (Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer) argue about priorities, there's the scene where Fehler and his wife break up, etc. The only interesting scene pertaining to Fehler's personal troubles is a sequence when, while drunk on duty, he winds up stuck on the side of a car being driven by a crazed prostitute. Nearly killed, Fehler decides to straighten up and fly right, and begins a romance with a nurse named Lorrie (Rosalind Cash) that for some reason feels much more contrived than it does in Wambaugh's novel.
This redeeming romance with Lorrie is what sets up the film's conclusion, which, as I mentioned earlier, features the cops reunited (although in the film we never really see them together to begin with, beyond a police academy montage during the opening credits). While this feels like a stretch in Wambaugh's book, in the film, it's not only a stretch, but it lacks any impact it may have had because we know so little about Duran and Plebesly.
But the worst is yet to come. During that last sequence in the film, the three officers are riding together, and they're all talking about their plans. Fehler, quite contentedly, talks of trying marriage again. Then a woman runs into the street and flags them down, saying her husband's violent and crazy. The officers go to investigate, with Fehler approaching the house first. You can guess what happens from there. Again, because so much compression was involved in adapting the book, the heft of these crucial final moments really isn't felt as much as it should.
The New Centurions was directed by Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green) in a workmanlike fashion, with nothing particularly notable in terms of the film's visual approach. He stages the film's few action scenes competently (especially a bank heist and the afore-mentioned speeding prostitute sequence), but other than that, there really isn't much that can be said. Fleischer also lets the movie's tone vacillate widely, from humorous (Kilvinski and Fehler putting prostitutes into a police van and driving them around for an night) to somber (Kilvinski's last scenes) and back again. While some of these moments, like the ones mentioned in the last sentence, do work, others don't, like a conversation between Fehler and Kilvinski in a bar that hits the viewer over the head with what movie is trying (or thinks it's trying to say), or a rather embarrassing sequence where Fehler, working for the vice squad, attempts to bait a gay man in a public park. The latter scene is clearly played by the filmmakers for laughs, and is indicative of the film's crude nature.
Sony's DVD of The New Centurions is decent in the video and sound departments; nighttime scenes could certainly look better, but the transfer isn't bad, and the Dolby mono track more than adequately conveys Quincy Jones' fun-to-listen-to but out of place musical score. This DVD is part of Sony's "Martini Movies" series (ironic, since Fehler struggles with alcoholism), and as such contains two pointless featurettes, "How To Pull Off The Perfect Heist" and "How To Hold Your Liquor." Both are a waste of time, so all the viewer is left with is the film's trailer.
I'm not sure if a good movie could have been made out of The New
Centurions. Its sprawling narrative and lack of a single central character
would pose a challenge to anyone trying to adapt it, a challenge the makers of
The New Centurions were clearly not up to. This is worth seeing for fans
of George C. Scott and anyone interested in movies about the LAPD, but Wambaugh
fans will likely be disappointed.
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• Martini Minute: "How To Pull Off a Heist"
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