On first blush, "Vice" should have been titled "Not Another Cop Movie." All the predictable hallmarks are here: Cops and drug-dealing gang members spew F-bombs and N-bombs and kill one another gratuitously. They mutter corny insights like, "I'm close to the edge." Cornered, they turn on their own. It feels like you're playing "Grand Theft Auto."
But in walks Michael Madsen, he of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Kill Bill," as vice cop Max Walker, and suddenly the game has a soul worth saving. Max has the battered face of a drunken ex-linebacker, the hairline of Johnny Cash, the gravel voice of Nick Nolte and the morals of a stray animal. He tampers with evidence to hide a shooting during a drug bust gone bad, and soon his vice partners are being murdered in a fashion that suggests an inside job.
You've see this movie before, but you haven't seen it filtered through Madsen, whose rueful observations on life, muttered as cynical voice-overs (even the 23rd Psalm gets a nod), reveal the most irredeemable of men. Max has been drinking and whoring his way out of the department since his wife died. In Madsen's hands -- actually, in Madsen's face, which turns on a dime from placid to menacing -- Max cannot be ignored. He's in perpetual kill-or-be-killed mode. He doesn't make arrests; he just shoots.