Film Review: Cop Out

Kevin Smith aims and misses for mainstream success with this laugh-challenged cop comedy.

Based on its advertising campaign, you'd probably never guess that the new action comedy Cop Out, which stars Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as a pair of bickering NYPD detectives, is a Kevin Smith joint. That's largely by design. For one thing, Smith didn't actually pen the screenplay for this buddy-cop flick—the first time in his 16-year career that he's directed a feature film that he didn't also write—so he hasn't made himself the public face of this movie in the same way that he was front and center for Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma.

More importantly, though, Cop Out represents a way for Smith to escape the confines of the Kevin Smith brand; while he's cultivated a sizeable and devoted fan base during the two decades he's been making movies, none of his films has ever truly crossed over into the mainstream. As the filmmaker himself has often joked, the box-office ceiling for a traditional Kevin Smith picture is roughly $30 million, which is likely half of what the Warner Bros. spent to make and market Cop Out. By not prominently displaying his name in the film's trailer or posters, the studio and the filmmaker are giving Cop Out the chance to sink or swim on its own terms, with none of the potential baggage or benefits that come with being associated with its director.

This experiment would have yielded more positive results had Smith picked a better screenplay for his first gig as a director-for-hire. As written by brothers Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen, Cop Out is so thoroughly generic, it could have been titled Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan Shoot Their Guns And Crack Some Jokes. The film announces its lack of fresh ideas in the very first scene, which finds stern cop Jimmy (Willis) observing wacky cop Paul (Morgan) interrogate a perp by quoting lines from other movies, including Training Day, Heat and—yuk, yuk—Die Hard. From there, the unwieldy plot has our heroes temporarily turning in their badges due to their authority-flouting ways, which in turn forces Jimmy to sell his most valuable possession—a vintage baseball card—to cover the cost of his daughter's lavish wedding.

In the middle of making the sale, he's attacked by parkour-practicing criminal Dave (Seann William Scott), who steals the card and sells it to Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), a Queens-based Mexican crime lord about to make a big power play that will either leave him very wealthy or very dead. Naturally, Jimmy and Paul are forced to become part of his scheme, but they quickly establish that they only play by one set of rules...their own.

If that last line sounds like something that would been emblazoned on the poster for an ’80s Hollywood policier starring Schwarzenegger and Belushi or Crystal and Hines, that's in keeping with the spirit of Cop Out. Smith has frequently stated that he approached the film as a feature-length homage to the action/comedy hybrids he grew up with, movies like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. (In fact, he even went so far as to hire the latter film's composer Harold Faltermeyer to lend his familiar synth-heavy sound to Cop Out.)  Unfortunately for him, those two films had a not-so-secret weapon that Smith can't hope to replicate, namely a young Eddie Murphy, whose rapid-fire patter perfectly complemented the action-movie beats he was also expected to hit.

Obviously, Tracy Morgan isn't a slouch in the making-people-laugh department, but he possesses an entirely different kind of comic energy, one that's at odds with the movie he's been cast in. Morgan's chief skill as a comedian is his unpredictability—you're never quite sure what he's going to say or do next, but chances are good that it's going to be completely off the wall. That makes him the perfect fit for a sketch comedy series like "Saturday Night Live" or a wacky live-action cartoon like "30 Rock." In Cop Out, though, it's hard to escape the feeling that he's been advised to keep himself in check; although there are a few scenes where his innate weirdness breaks through, Morgan is oddly subdued and even dull. Perhaps that's why he and Willis—who has shown a flair for comedy in the past—are never able to establish a convincing comic rapport. Although they share almost every frame of the film, they often seem to be acting in different movies.

If Smith's primary goal in making Cop Out was to show that he could helm a polished studio picture, than it's fair to say that he succeeded. While it's long been standard operating procedure to knock his behind-the-camera skills (a tradition that he's encouraged in his typically self-deprecating way), the truth is that he's been an entirely competent commercial director for some time, at least since 2004's much-maligned Jersey Girl, his last attempt at courting mainstream success. Technically proficient with solid production values, Cop Out looks like the product of any studio drone, from Dennis Dugan to Harold Zwart. And maybe that's why the movie is ultimately so disappointing—everyone involved seems to recognize that it's a completely disposable picture. For the actors it's a paycheck, for the director it's a job, for the studio it's a piece of product to round out their first-quarter slate, and for audiences it's a two-hour time-waster that barely lingers in the memory. Cop Out may bring Smith his first big box-office win, but it feels like a hollow victory.