The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
In an obvious and commendable sense, Tiller Russell’s riveting feature “The Seven Five” can suggest a mash-up of other works concerning crime in the modern era, movies as diversely powerful as Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” De Palma’s “Scarface,” Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico” and “Prince of the City” and James Gray’s “The Yards.”
“The Seven Five” boasts all the dramatic torque and gritty realism of those films, which is indeed remarkable since it differs from them in one key respect: it’s a documentary.
Centered on the 75th Precinct in East New York (hence its title), the film was originally conceived as an examination of the Mollen Commission hearings, instigated in 1992 by New York Mayor David Dinkins to provide an independent investigation of police corruption. But as the filmmakers went along, they decided to focus on the career of one witness, the so-called “Dirtiest Cop Ever,” who agreed to testify in exchange for the commission’s recommendation of leniency in sentencing for him.
Michael Dowd is his name, and when we see him testifying before the commission in the film’s opening minutes, he seems less like a paragon of institutional evil than a fairly regular guy who’s done some bad things and now intends to be honest about it. As the committee members list the charges against him, he admits to every one.
The film then jumps back a decade to remind us what New York was like when the crack cocaine epidemic raged in the early ‘80s. Before then, a bad cop could shake down local thugs for pocket money. But cocaine upped the stakes to stratospheric heights, where even the dingiest storefront operation could be turning over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. Once Mike Dowd learned how easily a dishonest cop could get a share of this illicit bounty, he never looked back.
In tracing the arc of his increasingly successful criminal career during the ‘80s, the film shows how he moved from robbery and extortion of low-level dealers to active collaboration with their superiors. Through a car stereo dealer named Baron Perez, he connected with a drug lord named Chelo, the head of a Dominican gang called La Compania. But his biggest step up came from meeting an even more elevated capo named Adam Diaz, who began paying Dowd and his partner eight grand a week for protecting his organization’s dealings and keeping the cops off its trail.
This kind of story has been told endlessly in dramatic movies and TV shows, but rarely has a film offered characters like these telling their own stories. To their credit, the filmmakers were able to gain interviews with Dowd and other criminals (most having already completed prison sentences for the crimes they discuss) as well as the people who investigated them. Putting these sometimes very emotional testimonies, from people who are real and often strikingly colorful, together with some very vivid archival and surveillance footage is what gives the film its extraordinary dramatic power. (Kudos to editors Chad Beck and James Carroll for their expert shaping of this material.)
One aspect of “The Seven Five” with plenty of current resonance is its portrait of police culture. In one sense, Dowd, though suspected by some of his colleagues, was able to take his criminal career to such lengths because of cops’ unwillingness to rat on each other. (He eventually got popped by Suffolk County police for selling drugs there, not by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs unit.) On the other hand, the film clearly suggests the relative rarity of bad cops like Dowd in showing how difficult it was for him to get others to join him in his pursuit of easy money on the wrong side of the law.
His most important victory in this respect was his partner, Kenny Eurell. The two men were in their 20s when they met, with wives and young kids. It took Dowd six months to lure Eurell into the criminal fold, but once he did, their bond became incredibly intense; one compares it to a love affair. They shared in the danger and in the illegal rewards, from fancy cars to expensive vacations to nice suburban houses.
Like his fictional doppelgangers – think Pacino’s Scarface – Dowd was destined to be undone by his penchant for excess. Drinking heavily and using as much coke as he was selling, he became careless and reckless. Yet even after he was arrested for peddling drugs, the feds got in on the act, and the extent of his misdeeds began coming to light, he couldn’t be stopped. While out on bail, he got involved in a nutty and lethal criminal scheme that ended up costing him what may have been his greatest asset: his best friend’s loyalty.
Both wrenching and enlightening, “The Seven Five” avoids sensationalism to provide a nuanced, thoughtful account of material that’s at once sordid and instructive. I came out of it hoping (futilely, no doubt) that Hollywood producers aren’t already lunging to turn it into a big, splashy crime epic. We’ve already seen that movie, too many times. The real thing is far more sobering and useful.