NYPD detective Michael Dowd single-handedly subverts the talking heads documentary form during The Seven Five. Usually, subjects of a non-fiction film reside quietly in their chairs when being interviewed; that's not the case with the corrupt cop at the center of Tiller Russell's gripping procedural that unravels a decade's worth of corruption in Brooklyn's 75th precinct. Sometimes, when a question is lobbed his way Dowd manages to stand up and use his entire body to answer in the way an actor might during a stage production.
By exhibiting a heightened level of performance throughout The Seven Five, Dowd confirms his persona as an abrasive, stalwart, old-school vaudevillian who lived his professional life by a code of contradiction. Along with a squad of equally compromised officers, he robbed, cheated and manipulated criminals to feed extracurricular gambling habits and various other vices. Then they would preach a no-tolerance rule toward innocent cops who might otherwise break the thin blue line of secrecy. It was the perfect scam.
In the early goings, Russell uses archival footage of Dowd being questioned by The Mollen Commission in 1993 after finally being indicted for countless serious crimes. The defendant initially expresses a resistance to sensationalizing the depravity of his crimes. Within the context of the film, Dowd seems content to rambunctiously recall his exploits post prison sentence, fondly describing the intimate details of his criminal past. There's still a lot of gangsta in his heart.
The Seven Five centers on Dowd and his team's ambitious attempt to sustain an organized crime racket for more than a decade under the veil of heroism, making money on the side by protecting Dominican gangs with inside information and to steal from competitors. What's most shocking is the way they effortlessly gain the respect of gangsters by exhibiting similarly brutal tactics as the people they were supposed to be putting behind bars.
In this sense, The Seven Five is a classic crime film where the villains just happen to be cops. Except it's real. The filmmakers manage to sustain a consistent energy and pacing throughout, providing the viewer with a mosaic of history and detailing the personalities behind many of the most egregious offenses. We hear how Michael and his main partner Kenny Eurell shook down the competition, planned intricate burglaries and subverted their own superiors in the process.
"I get worked up telling these stories," says the excited Dowd during a particularly amped moment in the film. The guy gets off on remembering the when and why. During interviews with Dowd's former criminal co-conspirators, they all tell a similar story about his adrenaline-fueled desire for danger. He made it a point to coin "good cops" as those who would never rat out their brothers despite whatever misconduct was taking place. It's a very arrogant story of the American dream gone south.
Stylistically, The Seven Five functions as an engaging and dynamic portrait of organized crime that rivals anything the greatest minds in Hollywood could produce. As the centerpiece, Dowd continuously dominates the story, putting his stamp on this particular version of history that suits him best. Still, Russell comes out ahead, successfully addressing the sweeping scope of a corrupt police unit unchecked by management or political oversight. The 1980s seem to be akin to the 1840s, Wild West style.
By the end of The Seven Five, which opens Friday, May 29 at the Ken Cinema, Dowd confesses his regret toward disavowing his promise to protect and serve for a life of lawlessness. But his mea culpa is far less convincing than the previous tirades wherein he divulged exuberance for living life on the dark side. Instead of letting Dowd off the hook, Russell rightfully takes him to task, taking back the power from a bully who's sustained control for so long.
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