Fresh out of police academy, Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach) joins a batch of young officers guided by seasoned cop Kilvinski (George C. Scott). Tough but compassionate, Kilvinski schools the rookies how to survive on the crime-ridden streets of L.A. but also how to deal justice with a fair hand. As time passes, despite sustaining a near-fatal injury while trying to stop a liquor store robbery, Roy grows increasingly addicted to the thrill of working the streets. Though it takes a toll on Roy's relationship with his wife Dorothy (Jane Alexander), he finds hope through a new relationship with kindly nurse Lorrie (Rosalind Cash). Yet the cops face an uphill battle and Roy discovers the one thing even Kilvinski can't quite manage is sustain a sane, fulfilling life away from the job.
Currently available under the unwieldy alternate title Precinct 45: Los Angeles Police (1972), The New Centurions is a comparatively unsung though in retrospect important entry in the Seventies cycle of gritty cop thrillers. Genre landmarks like Bullitt (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971) drew their crime-busting cops as icons of cool but The New Centurions sought to put a human face on the badge. The film was adapted from the 1971 bestseller penned by Joseph Wambaugh, a real-life cop on the force for fourteen years. In fact Wambaugh was still working as detective when his book topped the bestseller charts and in interviews noted with wry amusement he had suspects in cuffs asking for his autograph. He remained a staple of the true-crime genre in print and on film. Five years later Robert Aldrich adapted another Wambaugh novel, The Choirboys (1977) as a movie the author found so reprehensible he went on to personally script a subsequent work, The Onion Field (1979) to great acclaim. Also worth mentioning is The Glitter Dome (1984), an exposé of the seedy side of Hollywood with a great teaming of James Garner and John Lithgow as detectives investigating the porn industry.
Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant translates Wambaugh's novel into a heavily episodic though vivid movie with memorable scenes recreating the author's real-life experiences. Among the most powerful are the moment Gus (Scott Wilson) shoots an innocent African-American man, an incident that sadly remains all too timely, Kilvinski loses his temper with a sleazy landlord exploiting Mexican immigrants, and an especially harrowing and well-acted scene involving a woman found abusing her baby. In a somewhat lighter vein one of the more likable sequences details how Kilvinski and Fehler arrest a gaggle of African-American hookers only to buy them some booze and let them go after listening to them swap outrageous stories. Interwoven with these incidents is an ongoing ethical debate as Kilvinski and Fehler ponder the futility of their jobs. Although it could be argued the base argument is no different from the one put forward in Dirty Harry (the law sees only crime and criminals, cops deal with victims), Kilvinski tempers his fierce street survival instincts with a compassionate, humane attitude to victims and small-time crooks alike.
Viewers who have sat through umpteen films with an idealistic rookie paired with a cynical, no-nonsense veteran may well groan but Fehler and Kilvinski emerge a great deal more complex and faceted than their cookie-cutter descriptions might sound. Kilvinski is ultimately far more vulnerable and uncertain than his hard-boiled exterior suggests while Fehler is thoughtful, articulate and even-tempered. Initially Fehler is a law student working only to put himself through college and support his wife and child. Yet he comes to love working the streets to the point where he more or less destroys what remains of his life outside the force. Stacy Keach and the great George C. Scott, reuniting with director Richard Fleischer after The Last Run (1971), deliver affecting, naturalistic performances. The film also features outstanding character work from the then-fresh-faced likes of Ed Lauter, Scott Wilson, future C*H*I*P*S star Erik Estrada and a very young William Atherton. Also look out for Roger E. Mosely, later helicopter pilot T.C. on Magnum, P.I. and Clifton James who went on to portray a very different kind of police officer, Sheriff J.W. Pepper in the James Bond films Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1975).
An often-underrated filmmaker as at ease with colourful fantasy and science fiction as with grittier thrillers, Richard Fleischer returns to the grainy, downbeat fly-on-the-wall semi-documentary style that characterized his true-crime films (e.g. The Boston Strangler (1968), 10 Rillington Place (1970)). While not as radical as the groundbreaking realism William Friedkin brought to The French Connection (1971), it is still a pretty sobering approach. Although The New Centurions is cynical about the policeman's life it is not satirical nor anti-establishment. The film acknowledges the presence of racism, homophobia, misogyny and excessive violence but its sympathies remain with the police officers who remain the good guys while the criminals, although morally shaded, are still the bad guys. As a narrative it is rather formless in a very Seventies way. Unlike other Seventies crime films the bleak, depressing, claustrophobic nature of its inherent message does not really stem from a drive for social change but merely exasperation and futility.