The most familiar face in Cop Car, a minimalist but heart-in-throat effective thriller from director Jon Watts, belongs to Kevin Bacon. Bacon, in a mustache and soiled undershirt, plays Sheriff Kretzer, a local lawman who's gotten involved in some highly illegal activities. The first time we see him, he's disposing of a body. Soon afterward, he's bounding across a field like a cartoon character, limbs swinging wildly, in search of the police car he managed to lose earlier — and which he has very compelling reasons to want back.
Bacon's the adult, but Cop Car is a movie that prioritizes a child's-eye view to merciless effect, even as it deals with corruption, drugs, and murder. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are two prepubescent boys who've just done the sort of running away in which they'll probably go home at the end of the day with no one having noticed.
But then the duo spot Kretzer's empty vehicle out in the middle of nowhere. First they dare each other to run up and touch it, then they discover the doors are open and climb in to find the keys have been tucked in the sun visor. "You know how to drive?" asks one. "Yeah, I know — Mario Cart," answers the other. And before you can yell where the hell are your parents, they're trundling away behind the wheel, screaming, "THIS IS OUR COP CAR NOW!"
The premise of kids going up against grown criminals is the basis of countless children's films. Cop Car is not one of those, even though there are times when it evokes any number of '80s favorites. It's a film in which people get hurt, and it doesn't dial down the constant danger in which Travis and Harrison find themselves, even before Kretzer figures out what happened. There may be no more stressful scene than when the boys find the guns stowed in the backseat and play with them, trying to figure out how to shoot, peering into the barrel as if that would help them discern what the problem is. The corpse Kretzer is taking care of sets the stakes high at the outset, establishing Cop Car as the kind of movie in which death is an option and the age of its protagonists is no guarantee of safety, from others or from themselves.
But Cop Car doesn't skimp on the anarchic fun they're having either, even if there's a constant unease. They burp into the radio and goof around with the realization that the car keeps going even when someone's not inside with their foot on the pedal. From the opening scene in which Travis and Harrison walk into the frame, repeating the worst swear words they know, the wide-horizoned countryside is established as their space — town, rules, and home are nowhere in sight.
The boys are aspiring hellraisers who are really just kids, goading each other into bad decisions, spinning out stories and explanations for a world they don't yet really grasp. Watts, who wrote the film with Christopher D. Ford (Robot & Frank), is able, without condescension, to get into the mindset of how children play and interact (Travis is the leader, Harrison the more hesitant one), as well as how they think — the pair are worried about getting in trouble long past the point in which they should be worried about something more serious.
That youthful mentality may be what nabbed Watts his high-profile next job as the director of the Spider-Man reboot, a gig that's retroactively made Cop Car into an audition tape of sorts. That movie will star 19-year-old Tom Holland and return the character to high school, and while Travis and Harrison are younger than that, Cop Car's easy immersion in their worldview gives some added credence to Marvel head Kevin Feige's claim that the new Spider-Man will be John Hughes-like.
Then again, Watts is also the latest in a string of talented but relatively untried thirtysomething guys who's been plucked from the indie-film pool to make a blockbuster — the preferred studio type, someone new and hungry enough to cooperate and play by the rules. So rather than dwell on what Cop Car means for what's next, best to enjoy it as it is — a lean, mean drama that drags kiddie movie conventions into a darker, grittier reality, a film whose modest aims are part of its charm.