This erratic but nervy film was released at a time when popular portrayals of policemen were mostly limited to extremes—the sanitized, such as the 1968-1975 TV series Adam-12, and the scandalous, such as the 1971 feature Dirty Harry. Based on the first novel by real-life former LAPD cop Joseph Wambaugh, The New Centurions occupies an unsettling place between these approaches. Characterizing policemen as victims of physical and psychological violence who are lucky to reach retirement alive—and sane—the movie is melodramatic and occasionally overwrought. Yet, when viewed as either an intense character drama or as a historical corrective to one-sided narratives about law enforcement, The New Centurions gains a certain degree of validity. It’s also quite well made, with excellent long-lens photography by Ralph Woolsey capturing the soulless textures of Los Angeles in a way that accentuates the desensitizing grind of police patrols.
Furthermore, the movie contains a handful of vivid performances, from the showy leading turns by Stacy Keach and George C. Scott to colorful bit parts played by an eclectic roster of actors including William Atherton, Erik Estrada, Clifton James, Ed Lauter, Roger E. Mosley, Pepe Serna, James B. Sikking, and Dolph Sweet. And then there are the actors whose significant supporting turns complement the rhythms of Keach’s and Scott’s work—Jane Alexander, Rosalind Cash, and Scott Wilson, all three of whom deliver performances filled with palpable emotion. So even if screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Richard Fleischer let the story run amok at times, The New Centurions contains dozens of moments that connect.
Although it’s essentially an ensemble piece, the movie focuses on Roy Fehler (Keach), a rookie cop who hits the streets right after the opening credits and is partnered with veteran Sergeant Kilvinski (Scott). At first, Fehler is a soft-spoken married man working his way through law school. As the movie progresses, he becomes a cynical adrenaline junkie who tanks his marriage with a combination of alcoholism and recklessness. Meanwhile, Kilvinski ages out of the force and confronts the depressing truth that he’s lost without a badge. This psychoanalytic approach to police drama is commonplace today, but it was innovative in 1972, which is why it’s easy forgive the filmmakers—and Wambaugh—for the excesses of the story, all of which serve useful metaphorical purposes. Every death in The New Centurions adds to the overall theme of the price that brave, crazy, and/or naïve men pay for doing a dangerous job.
After all, who could be expected to keep their wits when faced with an endless cycle of new crooks and recidivists? “There’s always another asshole on the street,” Kilvinski says at one point. “You can’t stop ’em all.” And, as Fehler remarks in another scene, it’s not as if the public’s support for cops is overwhelming, because the film is set in a time when street justice was complicated by the rise of the suspect-rights movement: “Last year, everybody was screaming about the lack of freedom—this year, everybody’s screaming about the lack of control.” In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The New Centurions: GROOVY