Detective Knight: Independence opens with an armed bank robbery, all filmed at gun level in the familiar manner of a first-person shooter; and it ends with an armed robbery of the same bank, and then a getaway involving a hijacked ambulance, police humvees and a helicopter, during which one of the robbers will exclaim: “Fuck, this is some serious GTA shit, man!” If this is the gamification of crime, at least as it is seen by the perpetrators, where vicious heists are presented in the mode of thrilling entertainments, then the rest of Edward Drake’s film will deal with the real consequences of violence: the dead police and criminals at the scene, the bank manager with his painful shot wounds, the paramedics having to make traumatic decisions on the spot.
During the first robbery, LAPD Detective James Knight (Bruce Willis) will shoot dead a perp who is holding a young mother hostage, leading to questions being raised once more about this LAPD officer’s long history of violence. Meanwhile the paramedic Dezi (Jack Kilmer), called to the bank with his colleague and sometimes girlfriend Ally (Willow Shields), will witness both the robbery’s bloody aftermath and the police in action and, as events rekindle his erstwhile ambitions (“I always wanted to be a cop,” he says, inverting the opening line of Goodfellas), will steal the badge and uniform of one of the dead police to become an ‘angel of justice’ with very mixed motives and the same ‘skewed’ moral compass that prevented him from being enlisted into the LAPD in the first place. “Déjà vu,” comments Knights police partner Fitzgerald (Lochlyn Munro), as Knight, Dezi and Ally all find themselves drawn back to the crime scene for round two of a messy heist, and Knight once again must decide whether to shoot dead a perp with a young female hostage.
In other words, Detective Knight: Independence is a morality tale that comes dressed up in the guise of an action-filled thriller. It may be bookended by shootouts and vehicular mayhem, but the bulk of it is preoccupied with the thin line between cop and criminal, the law and vigilantism – and all these murky dualities, as well as the characters’ confused, conflicted natures, are underscored by Drake’s predilection for split screens. As we see officers like Knight, Fitz and even his supposedly upright colleague Detective Godwin Sango (Jimmy Jean-Louis) exceeding their authority, bullying and brutalising civilians, and failing at their own families – but also protecting and serving, upholding law and order, risking life and limb, and sacrificing their holidays and lives for the greater good – questions are raised about what distinguishes a ‘good’ cop from a bad one, or from someone like Dezi who is just wearing the uniform (and carrying the gun) in a kind of cop cos-play. Knight may appear to be the hero of the title, but he himself seems in doubt as to where he stands on the ethical divide, his very name splitting him between nobility and darkness.
“Give me the Fourth over Halloween and Christmas any day,” the officer George (Lorenzo Antonucci) will tell Godwin as they drink beers in a cop bar, “Couple of kids, shooting some fireworks.” While George is referring directly to police duties on the coming Independence Day, there is also a reflexive element to his words. For, building up to its climax on the Fourth of July, Detective Knight: Independence is in fact the third film in a trilogy directed and co-written (with Corey Large) by Drake, and the first, Detective Knight: Rogue (2022), was indeed set over the Halloween period, while the second, Detective Knight: Redemption (2022), took place during Christmas. Collectively, these three films – along with Jesse Atlas’ Assassin (2023) – were the last that Willis would make before announcing that he had aphasia and retiring from acting altogether. The symptoms of Willis’ disease had already been in evidence, if unrecognised for what it was, for some years, with critics accusing him of phoning in performances and appearing for mere minutes in films that made his name disproportionately prominent on the poster or video cover.
Yet Drake places Willis not just front but also centre in this trilogy. The technical challenges of giving such importance to an actor whose illness left him confused and unable to learn lines are met with interesting, often ingenious solutions. Detective Knight: Independence may be about Knight, but it is also often made around him, with a lot of cutting and some dialogue delivered in ADR while Knight is entirely out of shot. Knight is an odd figure, expressly designated an “old man” by the boyish Dezi, and recessive, immobile, almost absent even, in his own scenes. Still, Willis is hulking and mythic, a repository of the past rôles as cops and robbers in his considerable filmography – and he also long has been (since his Die Hard days), and still is (as Knight), exactly the model of maverick, ‘cowboy’ cop that Dezi would like to be, and that Hollywood lionises, even as Knight himself seems weary with all the shooting first and asking questions later.
So Detective Knight: Independence feels like a meta-commentary on Willis’ fiImic career. “Sons pay for the sins of their fathers,” Dezi tells Ally, citing his own cop-hating, ex-criminal father (Timothy V. Murphy) who now devotes his time to running a shelter for children. Certainly Dezi and Knight both have their own daddy issues, but Knight, himself a negligent father to his own daughter, is also a father figure to Dezi, instantiating the kind of heroic policing – with a lot of moral shading – that Dezi both idealises and aspires to inherit. Yet where Knight is an ambiguous figure, his actions always open to question, Dezi, for all his ideological posturings and claims to righteousness, is unambiguously in the wrong and beyond the pale – the dark side of Knight that must be suppressed if order is to be restored. In setting his film over a distinctly American holiday, Drake is openly interrogating the values upon which the nation has been founded, while also staging the contradictions and uneasy dissonances in that nation’s adopted heroes.
Given that Willis has for years been embodying and inspiring the American character with the individualist enforcers whom he has so often portrayed, this makes for a peculiarly bittersweet and rather self-aware swan song, where Knight is confronted with a product of his own influence. The final image of Detective Knight: Independence, though presenting us with the spirited Willis of old, also stings like a punch to the face. It is as though the film were looking back over all the cops that Willis has played, and reminding us that the themes they were rehearsing – of the law, of justice, of retribution, of punishment – are in the end no game (even if the film’s climax unfolds in a sports field). It is all a matter of moral judgments made in the moment, and any mistake can have grave consequences that come home to roost.
strap: Edward Drake’s police trilogy closer is Bruce Willis’ swan song, and a rueful reassessment of his career
© Anton Bitel