Robert Faenza’s brilliantly twisted Copkiller (aka Corrupt) is a late-period giallo based on Hugh Fleetwood’s novel The Order of Death. This confoundedly homo-(un)erotic film features several startling performances, especially PiL’s surprisingly competent front man, Johnny Lydon – whose band was to have originally provided the film’s music as well (sample This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get for a taste of what they had in mind).
Harvey Keitel is excellent – as always – in a role that seems to favor his New York tough-guy persona. Italy’s Leonard Mann, as Bob Carvo, who made such a great impression in 1974’s Il Corpo (aka The Body), and the astonishingly lovely French actress Nicole Garcia (who is perfect as Leonore Carvo) do their parts justice, although Lenore’s character, not at all like a Poe story, has a very odd presence here indeed. The great Sylvia Sydney plays, most improbably, Johnny Lydon’s grandmother. But she is an absolute natural, even so, playing up her all-too brief on-screen moments to a glorious hilt.
A masked killer dressed as a policeman is killing corrupt cops on New York City’s drug squad. Meanwhile the head of the division, Lt. Fred O’Connor (Harvey Keitel), shares an illicitly acquired secret getaway along (Italy’s) Central Park West with Bob Carvo (Leonard Mann), another cop on the force. One day a rich young man named Leo (Johnny Lydon) shows up at the apartment claiming to be the cop killer and knowing O’Connor’s secret too.
Although I’ve not read the book, there’s much the movie simply does not explain. Most of this probably revolves – the appropriate choice of words here - around Harvey Keitel’s character. Is he gay? If so, the film seems to argue successfully that it simply does not matter.
The result becomes a study in obsession. Whose? Does that even matter? Lives are ruined – and no one, including the characters, knows why. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it? Why the massacre at Virginia Tech? Who shot JFK? Will we ever know for sure? More importantly, what’s knowing anything going to solve?
Like other outsiders who view the United States with a very different – and often more accurate - eye than us natives (Wim Wenders, for example), director Robert Faenza takes a rather jaundiced view of America that certainly looks weird (New York street shots, Cinecitta interiors).
Whether it’s intended or not, it alters our perceptions of reality – which it should. In a film like this, we are on another planet, where we should be. The film’s crowning achievement is that it doesn’t evacuate us from the planet. We’re utterly trapped in this weird universe.
Now, as to Johnny Lydon, there are many, many things one can say about his performance here but I truly believe that he is sensational in this film. Admittedly, though, he has some incredibly hammy scenes. Maybe that’s the (his) point.
There's a scene where he says "I'm as American as you are" to Harvey Kietel in what is obviously an Italian set, with not one quibble about maintaining his full-on British accent. Also, there's a scene where Fred (Kietel) has done something that Leo (Lydon) disapproves of, and Lydon bangs his fists on the kitchen table, screaming "No! No! No! No! No!," just like a little kid.
But I think that's an essential part of his character - Leo IS a grown-up, messed-up little kid. He's looking for a father. Oddly, at the film's beginning, Leo makes a tape recording about Fred, whom he refers to as "almost maternal", and he wants to be punished for being a bad boy, which explains his attraction to authority (cops) and, of course, provides the homoerotic/S-M angle of the movie.
Somehow Lydon has a special gift for revealing a very innocent, vulnerable, needy side. At one point, Kietel's character tries shoving Lydon's head into an oven, and Lydon's struggle against it all seems very real and his cries seem genuinely anguished. And there are other times when tough-guy Kietel grips Lydon's face in a threatening manner and Lydon never flinches, never shows fear and manages to convey with a sneer and no tear, that he's manipulating Kietel like any kid would a parent; yet underneath it all he is just a needy, lonely boy.
Another interesting thing is that Lydon, who is now a grandfather himself (!!!), is dressed up as an old man in black and white photos as his own grandfather in the film. The obvious physical similarities make you wonder about who this person was: Leo's twice-removed twin, or a figment of Leo's imagination (himself as a normal, respectable man - or how the appearance of normality hides demons within).
I find that he also plays much better than expected with Harvey Kietel - talk about two different acting styles! But I can see why Lydon never went back into film.
He probably didn't want to get typecast as "the punk" (Johnny Rotten) or "the psychopath" (Leo) and he probably realizes that he's never exactly been the chameleon that most actors have to be to take on a wide array of parts. Johnny Lydon's what you want, Johnny Lydon's what you get.
Copkiller may just be the grubby little b-film that it appears to be in second-hand VHS copies and gray-market boots. But, like Joseph Losey’s The Servant, it is a deeply intriguing and endlessly fascinating film that poses many questions it never answers.