The buddy cop movie works best as a balancing act between action and comedy. Earlier films that established the rules of the genre by the likes of Walter Hill and Shane Black would blend funny dialogue with thrilling and violent action sequences. More recent buddy cop movies, like the Lord and Miller’s Jump Street movies and Paul Feig and Katie Dippold’s criminally underrated The Heat have poked fun at the rules and infused action sequences with silliness.
While typically an American genre, the shift in buddy cop movies towards lighter, more self-aware fare (accepting that Shane Black’s scripts were never lacking in self-awareness) was likely prompted by a British movie. That’d be Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz, which took the tropes of the buddy cop film and applied them to the English countryside, resulting in a film that’s part parody and part loving tribute. Guns blaze in the town square and car chases that would typically take place in sprawling urban cities were relocated, with screeching tires tearing through country lanes.
New British buddy cop series Bulletproof aims to serve as the counterpoint to Hot Fuzz, earnestly utilising the tropes of the buddy cop movie but placing the action in urban London.
Against the odds, it works.
Pike and Bishop are London cops who play by their own rules and get results. Their devil-may-care attitude and penchant for collateral damage might raise a few eyebrows back at the station, but there’s a gang of car thieves tearing around London with machine guns and knocking off witnesses and someone needs to take them down.
Created by director Nick Love (The Football Factory, The Sweeney) and starring Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters, Bulletproof kicks off on Sky with a promising opening episode. The episodes run for an hour and the first suggests an ‘adventure of the week’ format rather than a more heavily serialised style of storytelling.
The show works entirely because of the character work and chemistry between Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters.
The characters snipe back and forth, engaging in bickering. The fun dialogue exchanges not only bring the show to life but sell the partnerships well-practiced camaraderie. From complaints about driving to a squabble about expensive chicken, Bulletproof is at its best when its lead characters are jib-jabbing with each other. It’s here that it draws its best laughs and lures you into investing in the action.
It helps that Clarke and Walters take slightly different approaches to the material. Noel Clarke plays Bishop, and he gives a more broad performance, by degrees, while Walters’ Pike is less extroverted and his performance more subtle. Both stay within the tone of the show and the differences establish a balance. Essentially, they’re no nonsense when it comes to baddies and nothing but nonsense with each other. Both are likable and funny and able to sell the action, too, which is a vital component of the buddy cop movie.
Even the relationship stuff broadly works. Bishop’s romantic woes create some dramatic tension, even if the storyline doesn’t quite take, while Pike’s family life provides a bit of depth to a show that’s otherwise fairly uncomplicated. That said, I bet you a Coke his daughter gets kidnapped before the series is up.
While the knowing adherence to genre conventions reaps rewards, it does serve to make Bulletproof quite predictable. That’s not the only issue, either. Some of the action sequences just don’t land. Bulletproof is at its least interesting when it focuses on car chases, which just don’t have any tension in them (perhaps due to the low stakes).
The low stakes in the opening episode are confusing (a car theft ring and a half-hearted revenge plot that it seems to lose interest in) as this opening episode makes its budget count. You can’t really see any signs of a strained budget, perhaps owing to its zipping pace and the laughs provided by the cast. To make the show look big in spite of the budget, but feel smaller because of the writing is a shame. It’ll be competing against slicker and bigger budget American shows like the TV adaptation of Lethal Weapon (which, oddly enough, stars Damon Wayans, who not only starred in Shane Black and Tony Scott’s buddy cop classic The Last Boy Scout but also co-starred with Adam Sandler in a mid-nineties buddy cop flick called Bulletproof), so getting the cheap stuff right is important.
Although you can see the influence of the original Lethal Weapon in Bulletproof, the buddy cop franchise that’s clearly had the strongest impact on the show is Michael Bay’s Bad Boys series. It’s a well selected presence in the character relationship, but the attempts at recreating the director’s visual style, with glossy shots taking in grimy London rather than sun-bleached Miami, are jarring.
Still, the character writing, performances and a fair few laugh out loud moments mean that Bulletproof is a promising, simple and very entertaining prospect.
Bulletproof starts tonight, Tuesday the 15th of May, at 9pm on Sky One.