The Force review: tightly plotted tale of crooked police
Don Winslow’s corrupt cop set-pieces are well-staged but it all feels rather familiar
Don Winslow: You never doubt that The Force is telling you it like it is, yet there is little we have not seen before.
Detective First Grade Dennis Malone runs the Manhattan North Special Task Force: “Our main mission is dope and guns, but the Task Force teams do what-the-fuck-ever we want, because it’s all related. Most of the robberies are junkies and crackheads. The rapes and assaults are mostly gangbangers who are also slinging.”
When Levin, the newbie, has a near miss, Malone calls bowling night: French cuffs, martinis, steaks at Gallaghers on Fifty-Second. “It’s important that when the unit is out as the Unit, it dresses tight and eats steak.” The bill comes to over five bills for four, or would if they were charged. They leave 200 in cash on the table, because you never stiff a server or take change for a 20.
Bowling night they always get a town car and a driver. Then Madeline’s on Ninety-Eighth and Riverside, where the women are gorgeous, as they should be, at $2,000 a date. Then comped bottles of Cristal at the Cove Lounge and super-strong weed with Tre, the club owner, before they put Levin to bed and end the night rolling down Lenox Avenue: Malone, Russo and Monty, Irish, Italian and African-American, the stereo blasting and the windows open, all singing along to NWA:
F**k tha police
F**k tha police
F**k tha police
F**k tha police!
It’s a long way from the 87th Precinct.
While not remotely in the same league as The Cartel, Winslow’s masterpiece, The Force is a super-charged, kinetic, propulsive read. The elaborate set-pieces are superbly staged and the labyrinthine relationships and dependencies between cops, attorneys, Feds and City Hall are fluently depicted (“real estate prices rise as crime falls”), as are the varieties and degrees of corruption. The plot, once it kicks in, is well-made and continually surprising. I loved the telling details too: when the team skims a drug-dealer’s cash, they each take a self-addressed envelope, seal up their share and pop it in a mailbox before they check the depleted haul in at the stationhouse. You never doubt that The Force is telling you it like it is. And yet . . .
There’s a moment early on when Malone observes that mobster Lou Savino prays at the altar of false gods: “Lou ain’t trying to be Lefty Ruggiero, he’s trying to be Al Pacino being Lefty Ruggiero.” I couldn’t shake the sense that Denny Malone was trying to be Vic Mackey from Shawn Ryan’s incendiary TV series The Shield: the good cop doing what’s necessary in a corrupt world until what’s necessary runs to executing drug dealers and stealing millions in cash and drugs, until the corruption has stolen his soul. The Shield felt fresh and innovative.
Most hackneyed of all . . . is the unreconstructed combination of Irish-American sentimentality, paternalism, self-loathing, machismo and second-tier Springsteen lyrics that is Denny Malone
It even had some complex female characters. Ripped from the headlines though it feels, there is little in The Force we have not seen before: the wives out on Staten Island, “their heads together in girl talk”, the kids’ ball games and the family barbecues and christening parties (it’s a nice irony that the cops’ domestic lives are straight out of Good Fellas). Most hackneyed of all, because the story unfolds entirely through his eyes, is the unreconstructed combination of Irish-American sentimentality, paternalism, self-loathing, machismo and second-tier Springsteen lyrics that is Denny Malone.
It’s not that The Force isn’t thrilling; it’s just that it’s not especially interesting. And even if Irish cops really do get drunk on Christmas Eve to Fairytale of New York, it feels like an embarrassment to record them in the act. David Mamet is set to write the screenplay. I hope he remembers his own cautionary advice: “I wouldn’t believe this shit if it was true.”
Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright