One could glean the whole of Cop Out from its opening moments. Detectives Jimmy Munroe (Bruce Willis) and Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan) sit behind a two-way mirror, sizing up a suspect in the interrogation room and arguing over who gets to go in and play bad cop. Paul convinces his partner to allow him to use his favorite technique: homage (or, "homm-idge," as the case may be). So, Paul bursts into the next room and lets off some of Tracy Morgan's irrepressible energy and runs through a few choice references before the camera cuts in-between Paul referencing not only cop classics like Heat but The Color Purple and Schindler's List and Jimmy standing behind the mirror telling the audience what those references are.
Yep, there's Cop Out in a nutshell: one giant "homm-idge" that too frequently sucks the air out of its laughs by explaining the joke. This creates a dissonance in the film, between the jokes that slyly conform to and play with the rampant cliché of the buddy cop genre and the excruciatingly telegraphed gags that call attention to themselves like an overeager child trying to win the approval of its parents. As such, some bits that might have been subtler digs at genre tropes become muddled and suspicious. When Paul informs us at the start that he and Jimmy, clearly set up to be odd-couple partners, have worked together for nine years, do we accept this as a play on the usual genre setup -- of the grizzled career cop and the gonzo slice of loony justice -- or does this reflect a weakness on the writers' part, as Morgan and Willis act as if they'd just met and only display any sense of camaraderie when the plot calls for it?
Ergo, much of Cop Out drifts in the ether between clever and stupid, never locating that fine balance between the two alluded to in This is Spinal Tap. Like any good movie cops, Paul and Jimmy neglect their home lives. Paul suspects his wife (Rashida Jones) of cheating on him with the neighbor, while Jimmy has to contend with a bitter ex-wife and her smug, rich new hubby (Jason Lee, sadly confined to two brief scenes).
When the detectives botch a drug sting, Jimmy and Paul have to, you guessed it, turn in their badges and guns for a month-long suspension, just as Jimmy's daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) hits up daddy for $48K to pay for her dream wedding (in this economy? Jesus Christ, use that kind of money to put a down payment on a house). Unwilling to face the shame of letting the stepfather pay what would surely cost Jimmy nearly a full year's salary, Jimmy attempts to hock a rare baseball card worth upwards of $80,000, but nothing's ever easy, is it?
At this stage, Cop Out goes off the rails, with Jimmy losing his baseball card in a robbery, only to track it to a baseball-loving drug dealer and leader of a Mexican gang -- wouldn't a Hispanic gang in New York more likely be Puerto Rican? -- named Po'Boy (Guillermo Diaz) for reasons that go unexplained. Po'Boy agrees to return the detective's card if he and Paul can locate the dealer's stolen Mercedes. This setup undermines the entire film: yes, it's a comedy, but how does a premise involving a suspended cop taking on a job that a drug dealer could easily accomplish with his crew in order to retrieve a baseball card to sell it to pay for a wedding allow for easy access to the clichés of the buddy cop film? Yes, one expects a certain amount of exaggeration for the sake of parody, but something like Hot Fuzz, certainly the king of the cop parody films, at least ensures that every stretch comments in some way on a facet of the genre. All we see here is a plan that makes no sense either for the cops or the crook; indeed, the insanity of Po'Boy's decision is compounded later when Jimmy and Paul discover a person in the car's trunk.
Cop Out marks the first time that director Kevin Smith has shot someone else's script, an important landmark in his career yet also the root of the film's issues. Smith has taken flak from the start of his career over his visual style (or lack thereof), and admittedly Clerks is the only film that could cost $27,000 and make you wonder where all the money went. But I've always found his visuals perfectly suited to his scripts which, barring Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (previous his weakest films), center the film's action on a precise lack of action, focusing instead on the rhythm of Smith's penned speech.
Writers Robb and Mark Cullen clearly draw inspiration from Smith's older films, as most of Cop Out plays out as conversations between our two heroes. Yet the rhythm of Smith's own work eludes them: Star Wars references abound, as do scatological, vulgar rants -- an overlong, embellished tear by Morgan on a dump he took disgusts before it eventually just bores -- but the Cullens' writing lacks context, believability and direction. This is a film that features a vulgar, brazen black child who sasses the authorities. This is a film that actually features not one, but two bits involving the old "stop repeating me" back-and-forth between two grown adults (brought on by a dopey thief trained in the ways of parkour, played by Sean William Scott). Smith clearly allowed the actors to improvise as well, an aspect he's typically curtailed and doesn't yet know how to marshal (the weakest moments of the surprisingly rewarding Zack & Miri Make a Porno involved a laissez-faire attitude to Seth Rogen and co. riffing).
Which brings out Smith's uneasy marriage to the material. I've come across a few reviews of Cop Out that cite its bloated running length as but the latest example of the director's self-indulgence, a charge I find strange. While I might have cut a few minutes out of Dogma -- or really just the stuff involving the poop monster -- I find Smith to be a keen comic editor. Anyone who owns a DVD of Smith's work knows how stringently he adheres to the maxim of "Brevity is the soul of wit," as a number of bits any other director would have left in the finished product get the cut for the sake of flow and emotional connection to the story. Perhaps Kevin felt guilty cutting down someone else's material, all too aware of the pain of slicing out beloved bits and abandoned threads from his own scripts, but the film's near-two-hour running time outlasts the narrative by a good 20 minutes, and the long stretches of inactivity and weak material undercut the film every time it appears to build momentum.
But this all sounds so harsh. I find myself somewhat flabbergasted at the vitriolic reception afforded the movie. Cop Out's greatest sin is its fleeting impression, the feeling that you've seen all this before even when that's supposed to be the feeling this parody film wants to impart. A number of bits do hit the mark, separated as they are by the patches of limp genre send-up. Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody are terrific (and the only aspect of the film that consistently pokes fun at clichés, apart from Harold Faltermeyer supplying a suitably vintage synth score) as the rival detective team always hassling Paul and Jimmy, while Willis clearly understood that his role called for him to be Bruce Willis, and by God he Bruce Willises the hell out this thing. But, as 30 Rock fans could have guessed, Tracy Morgan walks away with the film. Morgan always manages to somehow look simultaneously like a massive, lumbering beast and a big, loveable kid, and he channels that appearance into his acting. I laughed hard when the police captain tells Paul that someone filmed him physically abusing a teenager and "commandeering" his bike and placed it on YouTube, and Paul giddily responds, "THE YouTube?!" I was particularly enthused to see Morgan cry, as few actors working today know how to wring more laughs from tears than Tracy Morgan.
Yet Cop Out doesn't succeed, moving listlessly from plot point to plot point even as it fancies itself a film about the chats that occur between those points, and it is unquestionably the weakest picture in Smith's canon. Still, it represents an interesting development in the career of a filmmaker no one would have pegged as a hired gun, and if Cop Out helps Smith secure the capital for his proposed passion projects -- the hockey picture Hit Somebody and the relentlessly teasing Red State, a horror film with a captivating premise made all the more appealing by its rejection from studios for fear of unmarketability -- then the disappointment of this meandering off-genre production will seem be fleeting.