Wham-bam Joe Carnahan returns with another banger, this time giving off major “Assault on Precinct 13” vibes as a hired killer (Gerard Butler) and a con artist (Frank Grillo) seek refuge inside an isolated Nevada police station that comes under attack thanks to a balloon-toting psychopath (Toby Huss) armed with a submachine gun. “Copshop” moves with Tarantino swagger, heavier on the comedy like a “Bad Boys” film, with a terrific Alexis Louder as the female John McClane out to save the day.

This may be my favorite Carnahan film since 2003’s dark and gritty “Narc” with Ray Liotta and Jason Patric. Co-written by Kurt McLeod, the story opens on a lonely stretch of road in Gun Creek City, Nevada. The bullet-riddled police sedan driven by Teddy (Grillo) finally gives out and so the leisure suit-wearing con artist who resembles a pimp starts sprinting down the road as if he’s being chased.

Meanwhile, Officer Valerie (Louder), sporting a sleek Lupita Nyong’o buzz cut and carrying a sidearm straight out of an old western, is out picking up lunch with her sarge (Chad Coleman from “The Walking Dead”), when a call comes in about a disturbance at Indian Springs Casino. The two jump in a jeep and head out unaware that they are about to cross paths with Teddy. Carnahan drops Dirty Harry’s “Magnum Force” theme over the opening credits, a playful way of hinting that you shouldn’t take the crime thriller too seriously.

At the casino, Teddy sucker punches Valerie during a brawl to get himself arrested while across the desert a drunk driver named Bob (Butler) slams into Teddy’s broken-down car almost taking out two troopers investigating the abandoned vehicle. He gets arrested and is thrown into the cell opposite Teddy at the Wolf Creek police department located in the middle of the desert. As it turns out the two men know each other and it’s up to Valerie to solve the mystery.

Butler is usually the hero saving the day but here he’s the villain (but still likable), and Grillo is almost always cast as the menacing baddie (except in Carnahan’s last film “Boss Level”) so it’s refreshing to see him deliver a toned-down performance even if he’s still on the wrong side of the law. Both characters reside in this grey area between good and evil which creates an enigma that keeps the audience guessing plus we’re not really sure who to root for until all hell breaks loose in a tribute to John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” and Louder becomes the film’s heroine.

The mayhem is created by the wonderful character actor Toby Huss as psychotic assassin Anthony Lamb who pays a visit to the station posing as a balloon delivery guy. To quote Freddie Mercury, “Out of the doorway the bullets rip” and soon Valerie is scrambling for safety locking herself in the bullet-proof holding tank with Teddy and Bob who are both begging her to set them free before looney Lamb arrives.

I wondered why Butler, the leading man hero, would take a backseat as part of an ensemble piece, but by the end of the film, it becomes evident. There’s more to these characters than meets the eye and so part of the fun is trying to figure out who’s playing who.

“Copshop” is lots of fun. The dialogue is clever, the action first-rate, and Louder shines brightly as she holds her own opposite Butler and Grillo. After it was over, I found myself looking forward to watching it again.

(3 ½ stars)

Opens in theaters today

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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