Genre: Cop Drama
Premise: Two rookie Chicago cops find themselves embroiled in a multi-gang heroin war.
About: This script finished in the middle of the pack on the 2009 Black List. The writer, Justin Britt-Gibson, has written on some high profile shows, including “The Strain,” “Banshee,” and “Into the Badlands.”
Writer: Justin Britt-Gibson
Details: 110 pages
If you take anything from today’s review, let it be ELEVATION.
More than EVER you need to elevate your ideas. You’re no longer competing with E.T. and The Mask. You’re competing with superhero movies that all have 200-300 million dollar budgets. So if you’re not elevating your ideas to bring something new to the table, you’re going to get swallowed up.
Don’t write a drama about the difficulties of a two-race relationship. Write Get Out.
Stay too close to the template of a genre and I’m telling you, you’re toast. You have to add something more.
William Finley is a fresh-faced African-American cop on the Chicago police force, and on his first day of duty, he’s teamed up with fellow rookie James McCoy, an alcoholic dick who’s been sent here by his rich father as punishment for being such a fuck up in life. The two are tasked with escorting a medium-level thug named “Q” across town.
Meanwhile, a wild card crime boss named Hanson steals millions of dollars worth of heroin from former kingpin Frank Russo. I say “former” because Hanson kills him. Hanson then pulls a Joker, recruiting all the big gangs in Chicago, and tells them that he’s now the top drug dealer and all of them have to buy from him.
Finley and McCoy are so incompetent, Q escapes, which means they have to go looking for him. They eventually find him dead, shot execution style, and tab Raymond Priest, Nu Country Gang Leader and just released from prison, as the likely killer. So the guys go looking for Priest, who turns out to be connected to Hanson.
But that’s when the cops discover the capper. Hanson is connected to the cops. Which means it’s the CHICAGO PD who really took that heroin and are selling it. Poor Chicago. Can’t seem to shed that corruption label ever since Capone. Anyway, once Finley and McCoy know the truth, they’re targeted by their own, and must not only survive, but figure out a way to take out the snake inside the organization they work for.
The reason I read Streets on Fire was because it was set in Chicago and I thought it’d be fun to read something about where I’m from. Fail.
Here’s the thing, guys. If you’re going to write in a 100 year old genre – Cops and Robbers – you better think long and hard about how you’re going to bring something new to that world. And if you can’t? Don’t write it. Because nobody wants to read a generic cops chasing bad guys movie.
One of the only ways you can still write in this genre is to world-build. Treat your cop movie like Star Wars. Or Harry Potter. I don’t mean make it a fantasy. I mean wherever it’s set, build that world up so that we FEEEEEEL the mythology of this place you’re telling us about. The Godfather is a great example. There’s no other movie in history that gave me a better feel for the Italian mafia than The Godfather. Sicario is a solid example, too. That one didn’t get AS MUCH into the mythology of border patrol as Godfather did the mafia. But it did enough so that I felt like I was in a unique world learning new things.
I grew up in Chicago. And there wasn’t anything in here that reminded me of the city. The fast food. The crazy weather. The racism between white cops and the black populace. How every single street is filled with potholes. How much the town loves its sports. In other words, this could’ve been set anywhere. And once that happens, you’re writing a generic cop drama. And this isn’t 1983 anymore. Those don’t sell. You need to give us more.
And, to be honest, mythology and world-building should be your last option. You should be looking to elevate the genre in some way. Or go with more of a high-concept hook, like Safe House or The Equalizer. You can also get way with cop period pieces, which gives the genre an, ironically, fresh feel.
After I finished this, I thought to myself, why would anyone write this? Even in 2009, this genre was dead. And then the genius of this spec hit me. This is the PERFECT spec to write if you want to work in TV. The majority of TV is built around the procedural format. So if you can write a good cop flick, you’ll be in high-demand on the TV market. And that’s exactly what happened with Britt-Gibson. He’s worked steadily on some high-profile TV shows.
And maybe that’s the big lesson for today. Selling a script is hard in these times. So play the long game. Make your script a resume for whatever you want to write in. Whether it’s television or a certain movie genre, whatever. If you can execute an idea well, you can get work writing similar ideas.
But yeah, this kind of thing is so not for me. It actually pains me when I have to read stuff that’s this generic. It’s writing, guys! Your job is to ELEVATE! Give us something bigger than the norm.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Whatever qualities you give your characters, you have to then figure out WHY they have these qualities. You can’t just make a character an asshole “because.” McCoy is the best thing about this script. He’s the character who sticks out the most. Also, he’s entitled and a dick. So you have to explain, at some point in the movie, WHY he’s entitled and a dick. Britt-Gibson eventually reveals that McCoy’s dad always bailed him out of trouble, he was a star athlete, he’s lived a charmed life, never had any responsibility. Of course he’s a dick. When you do that extra work, your character feels MORE TRUTHFUL because his behaviors are based on a real past as opposed to a couple of adjectives.