A lighthearted crime thriller unwisely marketed as an out-and-out comedy, Cops and Robbers features a clever plot, flavorful ’70s atmosphere, and exuberant performances by a pair of actors not customarily cast as leads. The movie has significant tonal inconsistencies, and (like all heist movies) raises the question of why we should care about people who steal, but it’s so brisk and watchable that it’s worth investigating. Joe (Joseph Bologna) is a New York City beat cop exasperated by his inability to get ahead financially. So, one evening, he walks into a liquor store in full uniform and robs the place. Afterward, Joe tells his plainclothes-detective buddy Tom (Cliff Gorman) how easy it is to exploit the power of the badge. Determined to stage a major heist so he and Joe can retire into luxury, Tom approaches mid-level mobster Pasquale Aniello (John P. Ryan) for advice. Amazed at the policeman’s hubris, Aniello says that if Tom and his partner steal $10 million in bearer bonds from Wall Street, he’ll pay the cops-turned-crooks a cool $2 million.
Written by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, Cops and Robbers scores on two levels. The central crime is just weird enough to jibe with reality, and the straightforward motivation of the lead characters speaks to universal frustrations with the slow pace of making an honest buck—even though it’s hard to actually like Joe and Tom, since they flagrantly violate the public trust, it’s easy to see what pushes them toward criminality. Westlake also does a clever job of illustrating that everyone in the system is ripping off everyone else (brokers are robbing from brokers, crooks are robbing from crooks), creating the illusion of a victimless crime. In that context, the fun of the movie is watching Joe and Tom work out the particulars of their crime, even as a hundred things go wrong on the big day. The heist scene is meticulously paced and staged, with all sorts of nerve-jangling complications, and the offbeat climax takes place in Central Park on “Bicycle Day.”
Editor-turned-director Aram Avakian predictably does best in action scenes, when he’s able to shape varied footage into taut vignettes, though he doesn’t quite succeed in coaxing his actors toward matching the jaunty tone of the script. As a result, Cops and Robbers is a bit too serious for its own good, which is compounded by a downbeat score featuring the frequently repeated R&B theme song “A World of Cops and Robbers.” It also feels like a couple of dramatic beats are missing, with characters making confusing leaps forward, and Bologna and Gorman, though both very skilled at expressing their characters’ frustrations, aren’t exactly the most charismatic performers. Nonetheless, more goes right than wrong in Cops and Robbers, and the cast features a slew of interesting Noo Yawk supporting players, like Joe Spinell and Dolph Sweet.
Cops and Robbers: GROOVY