The year is 1980 and there’s a new cop on Amsterdam’s mean streets. Fresh from the small village of Urk, Detective Judd Cox (Waldemar Torenstra) finds himself thrown in at the deep end at the city’s busiest precinct. For this country boy, urban crime and decay is a real eye-opener; for his more experienced partner Montijn (Tygo Gernandt), fishing a dead punk out of a canal in the red light district is all part of the job.
It soon turns out that there’s more going on with the dead punk than just another drunk who fell in the canal and drowned while taking a leak. For one thing, he has the word “rat” carved into his body, and it doesn’t look like a punk thing. Soon the pair are on the trail of a major terrorist threat to strike at the heart of the system – the coronation day of Princess Beatrix.
It’s not all frantic action for detective Cox. When he meets Montijn’s sister Pien (Lisa Smit) sparks fly, despite her firm commitment to the squatter’s way of life. But as their investigation digs deeper, Cox starts to grow unsure of his new partner’s loyalties. Montijn was born and raised in Amsterdam and his cynicism constantly shines through, but for Cox there’s some things he just won’t do: at a time when corruption is rife and drugs and riots are pushing society to breaking point, can a straight arrow like him avoid becoming bent?
For Dutch audiences, seeing Detective Cox as a fresh-faced and somewhat naïve newcomer set against a gritty backdrop was a real shock: Amsterdam Vice is basically an origin story for Cox, who was the lead detective in a decade-long TV series in the 90s and the star of the most successful Dutch book series of all time.
It’s hard to underestimate the success of author A.J. Baantjer. He wrote 60 novels featuring Detective Cox (or De Cock in Dutch, which translates as “Cook” but has an obscure spelling which requires him to spell it out every time he’s introduced to anyone), while the television series ran for 123 episodes. The television series was actually named Baantjer after him (even though he didn’t write the series); in Dutch, the title of Amsterdam Vice is Baantjer: Het Begin or “Baantjer: The Beginning”.
Cox’s well-known future plays into a few subtle jokes spread throughout the series (including having to spell out his name when he first starts work in Amsterdam). There’s three main rules for understanding Cox: he doesn’t swear, doesn’t cheat, and doesn’t carry a gun. The first two are in place here from the start (the production hired the son of the actor who played Cox in the TV series to ensure they didn’t do anything that wouldn’t be in character), but the third? Considering he’s issued (and takes) a gun when he starts work, there’s a good chance what makes him give it up is going to play a pivotal role here.
While the original was something of a cozy murder mystery series, this takes a much more hard-edged and gritty approach. It’s a raw and realistic look at a turbulent time in Europe’s history that owes something to the classic American crime films of the 70s (and not just the wardrobes). The streets are grimy and full of trash, the locals angry and unhappy. It’s hardly surprising that riots seem to be a way of life, especially when the cops aren’t afraid to get a little heavy handed; an early interrogation of a squatter is the kind of heavy-handed police work the older Cox wouldn’t have been seen near.
The first two episodes were originally released as a stand-alone film, though they’ve been re-worked to form the opening of this eight-part series. Throughout the series Cox is up against a range of major crimes from arms smugglers to drug cartels and a threat involving a chemical weapon. It’s always grounded in a street-level realism though; this often feels like an enjoyably modern update on the action-based police dramas of the 80s, where the cops were often taking down criminals well above their pay grade.
Cox works his cases in a neat grey suit and upright attitudes to match. Montijn is a burly unshaven hustler with dodgy connections all over town. Together they give Amsterdam Vice a classic good cop bad cop team. But on the mean streets of Amsterdam, just how long can a team like theirs last?
Amsterdam Vice is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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