Third World Cop: Jamaican Dirty Harry?

Paul Campbell, Mark Danvers, Carl Bradshaw, Audrey Reid, Winston Bell, Lenford Salmon. Directed by Chris Browne. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (full-screen). Dolby Digital 5.1. 98 minutes. 1999. Palm Pictures 3023-2. R. $29.95.

Even the most esoterically inclined cineastes would be hard-pressed to name many movies made in Jamaica, a country rarely represented on the global festival circuit. Indeed, just about the only film that immediately leaps to mind is The Harder They Come, the legendary 1973 reggae-gangster drama starring Jimmy Cliff.

Now you can add another title to that short list: Third World Cop, a low-budget action-adventure shot on digital video that became the highest-grossing indigenous production in the history of Jamaican cinema. During its brief North American theatrical run, the film was widely dismissed by critics as little more than a minor Dirty Harry fantasy with a routine plot and impenetrably accented actors. (Palm Pictures wisely provided English subtitles for those unfamiliar with Jamaican patois.) Though not inaccurate, that verdict isn't entirely fair. For its novelty value alone, Cop is worth catching on DVD. Other incentives include a killer reggae soundtrack, vivid evocations of Jamaican ambiance, rudely funny comic relief—and an arrestingly authoritative lead performance by star-powered Jamaican actor Paul Campbell.

Under the brisk direction of Chris Browne—nephew of Perry Henzell, the auteur of The Harder They Come—Campbell plays Capone, a hard-boiled bad-ass cop who shoots first and asks questions . . . well, hardly ever. During a prologue in Port Antonio, Capone adds to his prodigious body count by plugging some bad guys who dare to interrupt his afternoon delights with a foxy lady. His boss is less than pleased—"Your methods of crime-fighting may be efficient, but they're not always right!"—so our hero is reassigned to Kingston, his hometown, to help the local constabulary battle gunrunners.

Not so much a flesh-and-blood character as a larger-than-life icon, Capone is the kind of rule-breaking, risk-taking supercop who annoys his superiors and scares his peers. When his fearful partner suggests they radio for backup before crashing into a warehouse filled with armed thugs, Capone growls: "What do you want? An air strike? No one's going to cramp my style today!" Once inside, he makes quick work of the klutzy thugs, saving his last shot for a doofus who can't figure out how to replace the ammo clip in his brand-new pistol. "Next time," Capone jeers as the perp bleeds, "read the instruction manual, idiot!"

Capone lives by a simple code—"We run tings, tings nuh run we!"—which the subtitlers thoughtfully translate as, "We run things, things don't run us!" Either way, this Third World Cop backs his words with deeds. To be sure, he suffers a brief crisis of conscience when he realizes that an old friend—Ratty (Mark Danvers), a scripture-quoting pothead who rolls his ganja in pages torn from his Bible—is in league with a one-armed crime boss aptly named Wonie (Carl Bradshaw). But even moral complexities can't cramp Capone's style in the predictable but satisfyingly exciting climax.

The DVD edition of Third World Cop includes a behind-the-scenes featurette that looks and sounds as amateurish as something you'd find on late-night public-access cable. Even so, the mini-documentary does provide some interesting information—the movie was shot in 20 days, at a cost of less than $500,000—and underscores why digital video appeals to indie moviemakers: A feature film with a maximum of local color can be produced with a minimal crew on a frayed-shoestring budget. In theaters, the tape-to-film transfer of Third World Cop was, at best, uneven. (Quite often, there was a flattened fish-eye appearance to interior scenes.) On DVD, however, the movie looks more like a videotaped daytime drama, especially when Browne and his actors go outside for non-touristy views of Kingston's mean streets. All that's missing is a glimpse of Susan Lucci or some other soap opera star on an improbably far-flung location shoot.