It’s been a long time since I’ve seen police officers trolling around in those classic, boxy Crown Victorias and after watching The Glass Shield I had an unmistakable yearning to watch “CHiPs”. That sense of nostalgia was the only positive thing I carried away from the film. Everything else the movie touches turns to cinematic ash. Unfortunately it addresses important things including racism, gender equality and police brutality, three topics that deserve much better treatment.
Johnny “J.J.” Johnson. is a young black guy, fresh out of the training academy and newly assigned to the sheriff’s department by special appointment from the commissioner’s office. When he arrives on the first day in a department full of angry white men he’s completely oblivious to the childishly obvious reason behind his present appointment. It takes the department’s one female officer (who could, in a pinch, also pass for an angry white man) to point out that J.J. is only special for the color of his skin. The racial clichés only build from there.
In the world that writer/director Charles Burnett has created, generalizations are rampant. The only time a black person does anything wrong, it’s because a white person coerced him. The only time a white man does anything good, it’s because a black person encouraged him. White women are OK, but it’s even better if you’re a minority female. While Burnett’s racial commentaries seem to have the best intentions, they are as naïve as those of J.J. himself.
J.J.’s department is a den of thieves, a group of crooked cops who have recruited the worst of the worst into their ranks. It’s a collection of the most underhanded and aggressive white men on the planet and each one has mastered the art of hiding behind their gun and badge. When one of his fellow officers makes a race-based stop that results in the arrest of an alleged murderer, J.J. lies on the witness stand to cover up the illegitimate reasons behind the arrest. Unbeknownst to J.J. the entire arrest and trial is part of a massive, racially motivated conspiracy and he has unwittingly landed himself right in middle.
The Glass Shield lacks the kinds of saavy and sophistication that make for a good cop/courtroom drama. It spends too much time pushing its polarizing messages about racism to tell a compelling story, a total shame given the potential talent of the cast. Lead actor Michael Boatman, best known for his role as Carter on “Spin City”, does a great job playing the world’s most naïve person ever to be made an officer of the law. That quality in J.J. isn’t Boatman’s fault. It’s intentionally written that way in the script.
Elliot Gould, Bernie Casey, Lori Petty, and a host of other actors are completely wasted. It’s painful to watch them giving such great performances in such a poorly paced movie with muddled dialogue and simplistic character interactions.
Originally released in 1995, the The Glass Shield fails miserably in achieving its noble aspirations. On a technical level, the writing, score and cinematography all feel more like a nineties made-for-TV project. Still, TV shows like “CHiPs”, “In the Heat of the Night” and “Law & Order” have all handled the same topics and situations with greater success. They understood how to tell a compelling story that delivered powerful social statements without patronizing the audience.
The movie flounders for almost two hours, finally reaching an anti-climactic conclusion that left me unsatisfied and wondering if a movie this stigmatized had any chance of making any impact at all. I have not doubt that Burnett’s heart was in the right place, and his gift for turning patrol cars arriving at crime scenes into ballet-like dancing is unquestionable, but it takes more than good intentions to make a good film.
Miramax has embarked on a journey. I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish, but I suspect it involves squeezing every dime possible out of any movie they’ve ever made. Films are flying out of the Miramax vault in packages shamelessly labeled “Collector’s Series”, despite the fact that no one except world record contenders would want them in their collection.
How shameless can they get, you ask? The Glass Shield stars Michael Boatman and Lori Petty, yet it’s Ice Cube’s mug plastered on the front cover. Never mind that Ice Cube only has about five scenes and less than twenty real lines. It also features a quote from The Dallas Morning News declaring the movie’s “heart-stopping suspense”. Perhaps that’s a clever way of saying the so-called suspense bored the reviewer to death? Most insulting is the front cover claim that the disc contains hours of all-new bonus material. That fact is, if it weren’t for the Spanish language track and director’s commentary there’s hardly an hour of special features. That stretch alone irks me enough to think about almost sending Miramax a nasty letter.
Director/writer Charles Burnett and score composer Stephen James Taylor are the only two people who bothered showing up for to film the DVD’s bonus features. It’s not a great testimony that none of the actors could spare a moment to reflect on what was obviously intended to be a socially impacting film. Burnett and Taylor each have a short featurette where they discuss their roles in the project, but the only interesting parts involve Taylor’s non-conventional collection of homemade instruments.
Director and composer both come together to record a commentary track. Their conversation is more compelling than the film’s dialogue, but that’s not saying an awful lot. It’s interesting to hear them talk about what they were actually trying to achieve with the various scenes in the film, but those revelations only make the movie’s flaws stand out that much more.
The disc’s video and audio quality are a bit rough, but that’s probably the nature of the original film and not a defect in the digital conversion. The sound is slightly muffled; sometimes sounding like the boom mic is covered in a paper bag. Graininess and fuzziness in the video may have been an intentional effect. That might have worked for a faster paced story with grittier dialogue, but for this film it simply comes across as low-budget.
The most impressive feature is the movie’s original theatrical trailer, a piece of cinematic genius that made a mediocre film look like an innovative dramatic thriller. Whoever put it together deserves an Oscar.
“Collector’s Series” seems to be Miramax’s cute way of saying “buy this if you want to own everything we’ve ever made no matter how crappy it is”. There’s nothing in this package that makes it exceptional and the bonus features are less than impressive. It’s not even worth a rent unless you’ve made it your objective to see every film Ice Cube ever made.