Detroit Has Moments of Brilliance, But It Completely Underwhelms

Detroit Plot Summary:

Based on the true story of the Detroit riots in the late ’60s when racial tensions between urban Detroit and cops reached a boiling point that resulted in tragic death and controversy at the Algiers Motel.

Detroit is a prime example of Kathryn Bigelow’s biggest strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. Much like Zero Dark Thirty, she delivers moments of pure power and tension that echo throughout the theater. Much like her previous films though, Detroit meanders, stumbles, and unfortunately, despite those strong moments, the bad outweighs the good for Bigelow this time around. While I would softly recommend this film, I’m not enthusiastically telling you to run out to the theater and see it, and that’s a shame. While there’s clearly a valiant effort here, it left very little impact on me, and with the type of subject matter we’re dealing with, that’s a fatal flaw.

The first half hour is strong. After a touching opening animated sequence, Bigelow perfectly captures the complete and utter chaos that was Detroit in 1967. The movie opens at such a breakneck pace that it ends up hurting the film as it goes along. It can’t sustain it. The movie still has you in its grasp though as it starts to introduce all the major players.

We see how these riots not only create a dangerous divide between urban Detroit and the police, but how it affects everyday people just trying to do their job. One of the central characters in the film, Larry Reed, played by Algee Smith, dreams of making it big with his vocal band, The Dramatics. Seconds before their big break, the entire club has to shut down because of the riots. Seeing how the riots not only affected society as a whole, but also on a more personal level was fascinating to watch.

John Boyega plays Dismukes, a simple Security Guard who tries his best to stay out of the way and do his job. His first couple scenes are great, as we really get to know Dismukes and root for him, so it really pisses you off when bad stuff starts happening to him.

As Larry and his friend, Fred, played by Jacob Latimore, make their way to a party at the Algiers, we are introduced to many great supporting players. Jason Mitchell plays Carl, who’s not in the film much, but his impact is strong. Mitchell has one scene that is both harsh and funny, and he could be nominated for an Oscar on this one scene alone. It perfectly sums up what’s going on between the rioters and cops, but done so in a darkly funny way.

Bigelow sets up her chess board of mood and characters very well, as we finally get to the crux of what this is all about. The entire middle portion is the Algiers Motel incident, where a few cops think a gun shot was fired, leading to a violent and deadly investigation at the hands of the Detroit police.  This is where the movie completely falls apart.

While Bigelow creates moments of unease and tension, this sequence is so drawn out and repetitive, the entire movie completely loses focus. While relentless in its portrayal of police brutality, it’s a shockingly underwhelming sequence. This is nothing more than forty-five minutes to an hour of the interrogated sulking against the wall while the police scream “Where’s the gun!”  This sequence should have your skin crawling. While it does early on, it gets stale fast. Bigelow offers very little dramatic meat for the audience to really grab hold of.

The performances are completely buried. Dismukes is supposed to be a key player in all this, but Boyega is relegated to just watching everything and is completely wasted. I’ve never been an huge Anthony Mackie fan, and once again, his performance is mediocre here. He plays Greene, who’s just getting out of the army, and even when he’s brutally questioned by the cops at the motel, I can’t remember a single moment from his character that was memorable. Chadwick Boseman would have crushed this role.

The sequence goes on for so long that I barely noticed when one of the cops went off the rails in a big moment. That’s how out of touch I got with this movie. Occasionally, the scene would jerk you back in with some good performances, including Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever, who play Julie and Karen respectfully, two young women who also get embroiled in the incident. They actually got some good writing, but it was far and few between.

The one show stopper who kept me engaged throughout was Will Poulter, who plays the primary antagonist cop, Krauss. He was unsettling and really made you squirm.  That’s the problem though. The movie NEEDED stronger performances from the victims who were brutalized by the cops.

Once the motel incident is resolved, the last leg of the film is all about the ramifications, and it’s completely dead in the water. The movie continues to move at a snail’s pace, and the writing has absolutely no oomph to it. There’s a couple good moments where Boyega gets to show off his acting prowess as Dismukes is interrogated, but it’s not enough. Once we get to the trial, I’m completely checked out.

Despite moments of brilliance, Bigelow really needed an editor here. It’s just too long. It should have been thirty minutes to set up mood and character like they did. Thirty to forty minutes at the motel. Another half hour for the trial, and that’s it. Under two hours. A better script was also needed. The dialogue at times was embarrassingly on the nose. If memory serves, one of the lines was essentially “Do you think we’re going too far?” Seriously? Come on.

When you make a film about race relations, the great ones leave you thinking about it hours later. Detroit fails in that regard. It loses its power in how much it repeats itself.  Seeing someone get hit in the chest with the butt of a gun in what felt like an endless number of times can only take your emotional investment so far. At some point, the filmmakers have to dig deeper.

I’m glad this movie exists.  I’d recommend it for the highpoints it delivers. At the end of the day though, I can’t get around the underwhelming feeling it left me with.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly Better Than ‘Meh’)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.