In Cop Out, for the first time, Kevin Smith takes on a script for hire. In place of Jay, Silent Bob, his other stock View Askew-niverse characters, the filmmaker works with screenwriters Robb and Mark Cullen to give us his 21st century version of the age-old interracial buddy cop formula.
There’s straitlaced, by-the-book Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis) and his partner, the certifiable Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan). The characters could have been named Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. Jimmy and Paul adhere so closely to the actors’ public personas that the performers appear to have essentially wandered onto the set and started riffing.
The movie’s a passable rendition of an obscenely tired concept. Smith brings his standard comic energy to the proceedings, manifested in his film nerd’s affinity for lowbrow cinematic history and his unabashed love for the very clichés being resurrected. Some character driven elements stand out: Paul rigs a nanny cam to see if his wife (Rashida Jones) is being unfaithful; Jimmy faces off with his ex-wife’s insufferable new husband (Jason Lee).
Still, the core of Cop Out consists of uninspired action set pieces, a convoluted narrative involving a baseball card, tattooed Latin gangs and a goofy sidekick in the vein of Lethal Weapon era Joe Pesci, played by Seann William Scott. The humor that underwrites the movie is so consistently broad and physical — one pratfall centers on the weary old swift kick to the nuts — that one wonders how often the verbalist filmmaker had to grin and bear it during the shoot. He’s too smart for this shit, to paraphrase Lieutenant Murtaugh.
The same could be asked of Willis. He’s played a cop so many times that he hardly has to rouse himself from bed to do so. The weariness can be read on his face here, frozen in a vague smirk, and in the robotic way he goes about confronting his millionth interrogation suspect and his billionth police chief that just needs his badge and gun. With each advancing year he seems increasingly ageless and he still has that don’t-mess-with-me charisma. But plop him in a comedy (as The Whole Nine Yards and others have proved) and he hardly bothers to moderate his shtick, in even the slightest vein. He sputters through Cop Out in that familiar, aloof Willis way.
That puts the burden for sustaining momentum, for keeping the picture alive, on Tracy Morgan. While his style of sustained mania works in limited doses on Saturday Night Live or as the thinly disguised Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock, it’s not conducive to the creation of a character worth caring about. He dials things down not one iota and the filmmaker, clearly enraptured, lets him improvise past the proverbial point of no return. When Morgan works, he really works, and when he doesn’t, he really doesn’t. The key is to determine what’s what and to then have the temerity to slow things down when necessary. Smith can’t, or won’t do so.
That leaves us with a passable buddy cop entertainment featuring an ill-fitting pair — one has too much personality, the other too little — a goofy, by the numbers plot and few touches beyond some movie references that really smack of classic Kevin Smith. Cop Out smells like a paycheck job for the master of slackerdom. He’s at his best on small, personal, character driven films — projects that let Kevin Smith be Kevin Smith, writer and director — not the interchangeable shepherd of standard studio fare. In that vein, his next planned movie, Hit Somebody, is said to be an in depth look at his passion of hockey. I’m sold.
The Upside: There are a few funny moments sprinkled throughout, mostly thanks to Tracy Morgan. The movie’s never boring.
The Downside: It’s thoroughly predictable and basically a waste of Kevin Smith’s talents.
On the Side: The movie was originally titled A Couple of Dicks. For obvious, unfortunate reasons, that didn’t stick.