At least it sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, the execution of the new Miramax film, The Glass Shield, a drama set in an L.A. sheriff’s station, leaves the viewer with little more than the perception that he’s just seen a movie that could have been something, but didn’t quite make it.
The Glass Shield’s the tragic tale of J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), a bright-eyed and idealistic black deputy-in-training who is "chosen" to join an all-white Los Angeles station for his first assignment. There, he encounters not-so-subtle racism and persecution which begins to crack his romanticism of the cop’s life.
Soon after his arrival, J.J. is drawn into a plot to falsify evidence against a supposed murderer. Then, a much deeper conspiracy is uncovered, and J.J. and his sole ally, Deborah (Lori Petty, as the only female and only Jew in the department), become trapped between the wheels of the conspirators and the legal system, both of which they are sworn to serve.
The trouble with The Glass Shield is that the storytelling is so heavy-handed and convoluted that it never becomes the gripping thriller that it wanted to be. In fact, television shows like Law and Order and NYPD Blue tell more enthralling stories in half the time. Director and screenwriter Charles Burnett introduces far too many pointless characters and takes the movie down so many subplot paths that the moviegoer has no choice but to give up trying to pin names to faces. And although the lengthy narrative scenes are cut with some nice bits, like renegade cop Baker (Michael Ironside) jamming a gun into J.J.’s mouth and threatening to blow his head off in the station building itself, they don’t even look like they belong in a movie that feels dedicated to droning on and on without really moving the story forward.
There are some parts to the film that shine: Boatman is absolutely riveting as J.J., and the bad guys couldn’t be any badder. The clever use of sedated color and lighting and some nice camerawork help the film immensely, also. But on the other hand, the casting of Petty is a complete mystery–she’s completely lifeless and out of place here. After all, I’m not the only one who hasn’t forgotten Tank Girl (though I’d desperately like to).
Burnett is a lucky alumnus of the MacArthur "genius" Grant clique and obviously feels like he can’t be second-guessed. Hopefully his ego won’t be too bruised by the lukewarm reception his film is getting, but he does need a wake-up call. The Glass Shield may have a few bright spots, but overall, it is definitely not the work of a genius.
Review by Christopher Null © 1995 filmcritic.com