Poorly constructed, haphazardly executed, and falling far short of the ‘80s buddy-cop movies it fawns over, Cop Out still made me laugh more than any other film so far this year. A sign of what a long, dreary winter it’s been; the weakness of the competition; or just my own taste for really dumb, crude humor?
I am an admitted, unabashed Kevin Smith fan and apologist. If you know offhand who I’m talking about, you know what a tricky task that can be. If you didn’t know who Smith was a month ago, sadly you may now be more familiar with him for his brouhaha with Southwest Airlines than as an indie director with a 15-year career of chronicling The Crude Things Men-Child Say and Do in films such as Clerks (and its sequel, which I truly adore), Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and yes, even Jersey Girl (the last time he tried to go “mainstream”).
Cop Out—starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan in a very R-rated throwback to the 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop buddy action-comedies of the ‘80s–is Smith’s first film as a director for hire. For the first time he’s directing someone else’s script (the first feature from writing brothers Robb and Mark Cullen); working with a real-life, big-time Movie Star and budget; and aiming for a mainstream audience beyond his usual fanbase.
I can’t honestly imagine anyone would go into Cop Out wondering, “hmmm, what’s the plot?” but just in case, here you go: Willis and Morgan are Brooklyn detective partners who don’t play by the rules, get chewed out by their chief a lot, and generally wreak mayhem wherever they roll. In developments that only make sense in Buddy-Cop-Movieland, Willis’s attempt at selling a rare baseball card to pay for his daughter’s wedding lands Morgan and him smack-dab in the middle of a Mexican drug lord’s nefarious plans. Meanwhile, Morgan fears his lovely wife is cheating on him. So yeah, Dostoevskian in its narrative and emotional complexity.
Here’s the thing about Cop Out—and this is why I admitted my Smith Love up front: Shoddy and uneven, it doesn’t compare favorably to the ‘80s cop romps it awkwardly wants to pay homage to. (The ones where the action violence is as hard-hitting as the comedy is sharp-edged. Even the score is by Beverly Hills Cop synth-composer Harold Faltermeyer.)
Nor does it stand up well next to the best of Bruce’s stern-faced action roles (Smith would be the first to admit he has no idea how to effectively direct an action scene) or to Morgan’s perfectly corralled lunacy on 30 Rock. And it certainly doesn’t add much creatively to Smith’s filmography, even though the New Jersey auteur’s cartoonish cinematic personality seeps through the cracks.
I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. Maybe not steadily—Cop Out has plenty of comedic bare patches and dead zones. Maybe not even uproariously—this is no symphony of crude belly guffaws. But for every bit that Cop Out is sloppy, strained, and generally not up to snuff as any sort of cohesive “movie,” I still giggled like crazy at even some of its flat-out moronic gags. I don’t have any critical rationalization other than yes, there are quite a few times that my sense of humor is very similar to that of a 12-year-old boy’s. And make no mistake, even working from someone else’s script, Smith still fills Cop Out with his usual brand of non-stop crude humor.
What endears Smith and his slapdash, nervy, often downright silly films
is to me that he’s always been upfront about his filmmaking
limitations—he has no sense of visual movement or composition; he works
with some very talented performers but is far from an actor’s director
(Smith seems to have learned from his idol George Lucas how to turn good
actors into monotone robots); and while he made his name as a writer of
hilarious, snarky, filthy dialogue full of pop-culture references,
often he tries to cram too many words into his characters’ mouths. But
what carries Smith’s films over their technical limitations is that
underneath his sexual and scatological potty-mouth obsessions there
always beat a big, sincere heart worn right out there on his hockey
So some of my shallow enjoyment of Cop Out is probably because deep down I’m still rooting for Smith and therefore spinning what some call a creative sell out as a positive step toward improving his skill set. No, this is not a Kevin Smith film, even though there’s more than enough of his stylistic trademarks sprinkled throughout. But like Smith’s fellow ‘90s Indie Wunderkind Spike Lee learned with 25th Hour and Inside Man, sometimes it doesn’t hurt for a motor-mouth wordsmith to get out from under his own verbiage.
Both Willis and Morgan sometimes seem confused as to why they took the gig (it was originally supposed to be Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg), and the result is both occasionally come off detached and uncommitted, as if they were playing the actors "Bruce Willis" and "Tracy Morgan" stuck in a half-baked buddy-cop riff. Which they are.
But even if Morgan’s wide-eyed yammering child routine is overplayed in a way Tina Fey is careful to never let happen on 30 Rock, he still throws enough shtick against the wall that some of it sticks. And while Willis continues his recent career tack of lazily walking through “Bruce Willis” roles, there are plenty of times in Cop Out—when he’s either fuming in gap-mouthed disbelief or trying not to crack up–where we’re reminded of what a wry straight man he can be when he tries.
Best of all, Cop Out is jammed full of decent supporting actors, each up them stepping in when needed to shore up the film’s shaky proceedings. Kevin Pollak is particularly good, but kudos also go out to Adam Brody, Jason Lee, Rashida Jones, Susie Essman, Fred Armisen, Ana de la Reguera (as a gorgeous kidnapping victim with a limited English vocabulary), and Guillermo Díaz (playing a very-‘80s-style villain—part cool swagger, part ruthless brutality, part deadpan humor).
But Cop Out’s MVP award goes to Seann William Scott in the Lethal Weapon 2 Joe Pesci role: the OCD/ADD petty crook who exists only to torment the heroes and goose the film. Highly improvised scenes with just Scott, Willis, and Morgan stuck together in a squad car play out like excerpts from the funniest, stupidest stage play you’ll never see. (Whatever you end up thinking of Cop Out, you have to come away thrilled that Williams will star in Smith’s next film, the Slapshot-esque hockey epic Hit Somebody, based on the Warren Zevon song.)
Is all this enough to make Cop Out a “good” movie? Hell no. How about an “entertaining” one? Well, maybe… depending on the lowering of your standards or raising of your blood-alcohol level. But even with money, stars, and someone else’s script, Cop Out still oozes some of that gleefully obnoxious stupidity that Kevin Smith always manages to squeeze into something oddly lovable–in this case perhaps because of Cop Out's glaring shortcomings rather than in spite of them.
And I really did laugh. A lot.