I was going to start this post saying complementary things about Richard Fleischer, something about how his mediocrity doesn’t get in the way of the film (and the film’s melodramatic mediocrity). Then he goes too far at the end, plunging the damn thing ever further into the muck. And The New Centurions is unbearably melodramatic. Stirling Silliphant loves every convention he can find–whether it’s the early scene with the cops telling each other it isn’t like the movies or the later one where the cops talk about being new Centurions. For such an influential (more on that part in a bit), the film’s got maybe one or two good moments. Overall, it’s a failed attempt at an honest portrayal of police officers (albeit, really, really good and honest cops). Basically, it’s an episode of “Hill Street Blues,” with James Sikking and his pipe no less, with more attention paid to the home lives of the cops. The ending invalidates the whole thing–and I just checked wikipedia, the first time I’ve compared novel to film since Tess–and the ending is a filmic creation. The book’s ending seems like it might make sense.
For the majority of the film, until that absurd ending, actually, The New Centurions isn’t terrible or even bad. Silliphant’s dialogue is horrendous and the actors stumble over lines, but the plot of the film is fine. Standard and melodramatic, but fine. Some of the episodes–obviously from novel writer Joseph Wambaugh’s time on the LAPD–are really amusing.
Of the actors (not the ludicrous ones, like Erik Estrada, who’s terrible), George C. Scott probably gives the worst performance, with Jane Alexander following closely. In Alexander’s case, she’s got nothing to do. In Scott’s, he’s got something to do but it’s often crap (his character’s story arc is terrible, regardless of its realism, simply because the film doesn’t really pay any attention to him). The supporting cast is generally good–Scott Wilson’s fine, so’s Rosalind Cash; Isabel Sanford shows up in fantastic cameo. William Atherton puts in a few minutes and he’s good.
But the real surprise of New Centurions is Stacy Keach. He’s amazing. He’s got the worst dialogue in the film too, but it’s still a privilege to watch his performance. It’s one of those unbelievably good performances, indescribably good; textured, nuanced, every positive adjective in that vein one can imagine.
I can’t not mention the score. I was trying and I couldn’t. I wanted to go upbeat on Keach (I’m hoping the white space does that work). It’s a Quincy Jones score and it’s terrible, but the interesting part is he lifts some of the theme to Shaft.
Directed by Richard Fleischer; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel by Joseph Wambaugh; director of photography, Ralph Woolsey; edited by Robert C. Jones; music by Quincy Jones; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring George C. Scott (Andy Kilvinsky), Stacy Keach (Roy), Jane Alexander (Dorothy), Scott Wilson (Gus), Rosalind Cash (Lorrie), Erik Estrada (Sergio), Clifton Jones (Whitey), Richard E. Kalk (Milton), James Sikking (Anders), Isabel Sanford (Wilma), William Atherton (Johnson), Ed Lauter (Galloway) and Dolph Sweet (Sergeant Runyon).