Just as a good villain makes a good movie, these real-life villains have such charisma that even though they may be horrible people, they’re fantastic documentary subjects.
“Welcome to the land of fuck.”
Thus hard-boiled ex-cop Ken Eurell describes the East New York area of Brooklyn with the vivid efficiency of a master storyteller in the thoroughly entertaining documentary The Seven Five, about New York City police corruption in the cocaine-fueled ‘80s and early ‘90s. The documentary is a Martin Scorsese movie come to life, complete with a Rolling Stones song on the soundtrack. It’s not quite Goodfellas, but it’s better than Casino.
The Seven Five is framed by the 1992 testimony of Michael Dowd, the central figure in the most widespread corruption scandal in the history of the NYPD. Archival footage shows a chastened but generally unrepentant man whose nearly decade long reign of corruption finally caught up with him. Interviews with the good cops who worked on his cases read like standard ID network talking heads, but Dowd and his cohorts come off like aging gangsters. These grizzled raconteurs make it easy to see how a cop could go bad. Dowd and one-time partner Eurell explain what it’s like to happen on a crime scene and be surrounded by bags of money ripe for the taking. Being a working class guy holding down a difficult, dangerous job, they argue, makes it easy to succumb to the temptation of skimming a few grand from a duffel bag full of drug money.
The film’s early narrative presents Eurell as a good cop gone bad because of a fateful partner assignment. The precinct had trouble placing Dowd after early disciplinary problems and wanted him to partner with Eurell. Dowd’s reputation was already as a troublemaker, and friends and family urged Eurell not to become his partner, but they eventually became both good friends and a bad team. Their partnership was when the real corruption began.
The movie would be entertaining enough if it were just about bad cops, which suggests a more descriptive movie title. The Seven Five refers to Brooklyn’s notorious 75th precinct, where the featured police were stationed. The filmmakers structure their narrative like a good feature screenplay, and take their time introducing the one character who may be even more entertaining than Dowd. Adam Diaz was a Dominican drug lord in his mid-20s when he hired Dowd and Eurell to be his lookouts. The pair at one point tracked down a particularly unfortunate thief who thought it was good idea to hold up one of Diaz’s fronts. Dowd and Eurell freely admit to delivering this thief to Diaz, which made (and makes) them guilty of being accessories to murder.
Just as a good villain makes a good movie, these real-life villains have such charisma that even though they may be horrible people, they’re fantastic documentary subjects. Which makes the film a kind of NYPD version of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, showing the seductive and entertaining nature of evil. The narrative loses steam in the final act, but whatever you may feel about bad cops at this historical juncture, The Seven Five is one of the most exciting gangster movies in recent years, and it really happened.