RedLetterMedia occupies a unique zone that intersects both independent filmmaking and film criticism. They have shown an admiration for schlock but an eager willingness to also deconstruct what works and what does not work for both low-budget genre movies as well as big-budget studio pictures on their ongoing webseries Half in the Bag and Best of the Worst. If anything, this keen awareness of narrative structure, pacing issues, believable performances and technical knowledge makes me hold their own filmmaking to a higher standard than other low budget and indie film. And therefore, while I enjoyed their latest feature, Space Cop, I also think it will fail to bring in new fans due to pacing and character issues. Below I break down what works and what does not.
RedLetterMedia is a group of friends in Wisconsin who regularly critique movies in the theater with Half in the Bag and do a roundtable discussion about B-movies with Best of the Worst. The hosts of Half in the Bag, Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman, are regularly joined by Rich Evans and several other friends. This is the same team that made Space Cop, a sci-fi action satire that’s also completely aware of itself. Not in an in-story meta narrative, but in the sense that they know the genre they’re working in and their limitations, both technically and performance-wise. Space Cop is written by Stoklasa, directed by Stoklasa and Bauman, and stars Evans. Previously, I reviewed their horror movie Feeding Frenzy and my verdict was that it was really good. For Space Cop, they were close to something great that could probably still be created with some different editing choices. If you’re already a fan of their content, you will probably still have a blast with this movie. If it’s your introduction to their work, your mileage will probably vary wildly depending on how much you forgive intentionally bad film.
In fact, this movie really made me think about what makes a “bad movie” enjoyable? For instance, really bad films like The Room or Birdemic can be highly entertaining because it appears the filmmakers were passionately trying to make a really good product but just kept making bad decisions and it results in something very funny. Enjoying a disaster like this is a type of schadenfreude. But when someone intentionally tries to make a bad movie you can get something like Sharknado, that’s still kind of fun, or something like The Room creator Tommy Wiseau’s The Neighbors, which is a total chore to watch. What’s the difference? Is it in the attempt to make something good? Do movies that try to be bad miss the point? Or does it all come down to pacing and overall entertainment value? It’s really hard to say. I am pretty sure Space Cop was made to be intentionally bad in the sense that the main characters talk in ridiculous voices and act in cliche action-movie outbursts of violence and the accompanying one-liner. But on the flip side of the coin, a lot of work obviously went into the special effects, lighting, and many of the jokes and gags.
Let me briefly break down the plot. Space Cop (the character, not the movie) is a cop from space and the future, as he likes to tell everyone he encounters, repeatedly. He’s played by Rich Evans as a portly, violent-prone loose cannon of a cop, constantly delivering ultimatums and one-liners in a raspy Clint Eastwood voice. While chasing a speeding alien in space he’s transported along with the alien mothership to the present. He gets a job with the local Wisconsin police force and ultimately gets assigned a case where a brain has been stolen from a cryogenic freezing lab, along the way gaining a partner from the 40s. This is Detective Ted Cooper, played by Mike Stoklasa. He intentionally talks in a nasally old-timey accent the whole time and delivers his lines in quick bursts of flat statements. The deadpan delivery is frequently funny but the silly voice reminds me of an SNL recurring sketch character. The thieves at the cryogenic lab are the aliens and the brain belongs to a genius. But why do they want it? Well, that’s the mystery at the center, such as it is. It’s worth mentioning that it takes Space Cop about 25 minutes to show up in the present and get a partner, out of an hour and 42 minute movie. That’s what I mean by pacing being an issue for me. The actual plot of the movie gets started very late in the movie and we’re introduced to the co-lead of the movie at the very end of the first act. It just takes a lot of time to get going.
Are there any character arcs? Not really. And that plays to the joke that Space Cop just does not learn how to do his job any better. And that’s fine. But he starts off pretty unlikable: failing at a hostage negotiation that kills thousands, shooting a suicidal man who drops a baby into a boiling pot of water. It’s fairly despicable, if cartoony. But by the finale of the movie, Space Cop is still shooting innocent bystanders. It’s all intentional, but I have to admit that deaths came across as a bit too cynical and mean-spirited for me to find very funny. Nevertheless, the whole middle of the movie is really, really funny.
When Space Cop and Past Cop are tracking suspects with terrible old 1980s camcorders or dressing up as rappers to trick the aliens, or generally stumbling around with terrible ideas for the investigation, it’s really funny. A foot chase scene where Space Cop tries to use his futuristic helmet results in some of the clumsy physical comedy that Rich Evans excels at. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Jocelyn Ridgely and Jay Bauman as aliens Zorba and Grigg, disguised as a humans both delivering some really funny performances. Zorba pretending to be a stripper and generally doing a terrible job is laugh out loud funny. Grigg’s ambivalence and seething inner anger is also great, especially when things go awry at the end. Grigg just says “bye” and walks away instead of standing around to get killed.
I also give the movie credit for some very endearing effects, both digital and practical. The alien faces don’t move much but the design and non-movement is absolutely part of the charm. The spaceship, Space Cop’s flying car, the ultimate enemy – all of them are convincing within the reality and aesthetic that the movie creates. The lighting is great. The sound is uniformly strong and the background music is fantastic with one exception. Just as the movie begins and the credits start I was ready for something explosive and exciting but the music was instead a track that was low-key. It felt mysterious but combined with the fact that the movie was taking so long to introduce the actual plot, it didn’t engage me right away. I really, really liked Space Cop’s uniform, a too-tight t-shirt with a huge star on it, a puffy vest with big gold shoulders and a helmet with visor. Also, the camera movement is great (although you shouldn’t expect any big crane shots) but every once in a while I was confused as to spatial relationships within a scene. Ultimately, I really believe that another pass in editing could tighten up the first act and clear up where characters are in a scene. Could it change a character arc? Hard to say.
The extras in the Blu Ray are uniformly great. They have featurettes on making the effects, outtakes, deleted scenes and a feature-length commentary by Stoklasa, Bauman and Evans that’s pretty funny and insightful as well.
On the Robot’s Pajamas scale of three thumbs, I give Space Cop one and a half. I truly love the work these guys do. I think they’re funny and I believe they know a lot about film. I just wouldn’t show this to someone as an introduction to their work. For that, I’d show them the latest Half in the Bag or Best of the Worst, then Feeding Frenzy, then this. It played well to me but I was trying to be critical of it as it stood on its own. I’d probably raise it to two thumbs or maybe even more if you’re already a fan of Mike, Jay and Rich.
Digital and Blu Ray copies of Space Cop, along with other movies by Red Letter Media, are available in their online store.