James Ellroy's unnerving 1983 crime novel Blood on the Moon presented a humdinger of a protagonist in Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins. A homicide detective with the LAPD, Hopkins is obsessively workaholic, as tough as Dirty Harry Callahan, and possessed of ethics which could best be described as dubious. He enjoys stealing evidence, breaking and entering, and seducing witnesses. It's all in a day's work for him. He has, as his boss tells him, "a wild hair up his ass about murdered women", and is at pains to puncture his eight-year-old daughter's illusions about the world because, as he sees it, innocent women are the victims of "a terminal disease that comes from way back when they're fed all the bullshit about how they're entitled to happiness like it's their birthright". He's also fiercely intelligent, with a genius-level instinct for deeply entering the minds of killers.
It was only a matter of time before Blood on the Moon was adapted for the big screen. Generically retitled Cop to dispel sci-fi aficionados expecting an intergalactic horror rather than a hard-boiled urban policier, it was adapted and directed by James B. Harris, a onetime Stanley Kubrick producer who had a generally unremarkable, improlific directorial career (and who recently revisited the shady world of Ellroy by executive-producing Brian De Palma's movie of The Black Dahlia). It was co-produced by its star, James Woods, no doubt because it afforded him such a potent performance vehicle.
The film opens with Lloyd discovering the corpse of a woman who's been horrifically mutilated and strung up from her kitchen ceiling. Observing the victim's unusual taste in feminist literature (titles like The Womb Has Teeth adorn her bookshelf), he weighs up the vague evidence and soon convinces himself that this is the latest in a string of serial murders of young women dating back fifteen years. Using his rather far-fetched intuitive skills in piecing together seemingly unrelated clues from unsolved female homicides in the Los Angeles area during that timespan, Lloyd comes into contact with a feminist poet and bookstore owner (Lesley Ann Warren), who harbors naïve romantic delusions about a mystery man who sends her love poems and pressed flowers. Over the course of his investigation, Lloyd's personal and professional life unravels. His long-suffering wife (Jan McGill), pushed to breaking point by his penchant for telling their daughter gritty bedtime stories about police busts, leaves him with a note diagnosing him as "deeply disturbed". His unorthodox work methods alienate his friend and superior officer Dutch (Charles Durning), and his mass murderer theories get him stripped of his gun and badge at the hands of his uptight captain (Raymond J. Barry).
Cop is a flawed effort. The plot traffics in coincidences, loose ends and clues that seem to drop right out of the sky. Warren's feminist poet, who at one stage implores Woods to "make love" to her, is the sort of flaky, panicky daydreamer who could single-handedly carpet-bomb the feminist movement back to the dark ages. And, unlike Ellroy's novel, little attention is paid to the motivation of the killer, whose identity feels almost incidental to the story.
But Cop is really the James Woods show, and he doesn't disappoint. Arriving hot on the heels of his Oscar-nominated portrayal of real-life photojournalist Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone's Salvador (1986), Cop consolidated the notion that Woods' hyperactive nervous energy could sustain a movie on its own. He twitches, crackles and chain-smokes his way through this film with an intensity that demands you keep looking at the screen and then punishes you for doing so. He acts with his face, his voice and his whole body. His lean, wolfish visage, with its thick lips with wary bug eyes, communicate everything we need to know about Lloyd's imploding state of mind. Woods gets us to feel his caffeinated, insomniac paranoia, his bull-headed stubbornness in the face of authority, and the maverick intellect with which he's been both gifted and cursed. Above all, he gets us to feel Lloyd's increasingly desperate need to silence his own inner demons by saving other innocent lives. He nails every shading of Hopkins, from sensitivity to sleaze, and he makes Cop as much a disturbing character study as a Dirty Harry-style thriller.
The film's centerpiece is a simple scene where Lloyd stakes out the sparse, dimly lit apartment of a vice cop he suspects has some involvement in the murder case. Sunken into an armchair, with his thousand-yard stare boring a hole in the opposite wall and his mind wired and weary from meditating on human evil, Woods presents a chilling portrait of a man at the end of his tether. It evokes such a queasy dread that it almost derails the movie, and simultaneously raises it to a higher plateau.