Great buddy comedies are often built upon the tension between two wildly dissimilar personalities, thrust together by fate and forced to adapt to one another. In the case of “Cop Out,” however, there’s precious little of that tension to be found between co-leads Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, but more than enough between director Kevin Smith and the shoddy script he’s elected to take on, and neither seems willing to budge. This comic policier will likely notch decent returns for Warner Bros. on the strength of its cast and paucity of its weekend competition, though longterm prospects look dubious.
“Cop Out” marks indie hero Smith’s first attempt to direct a script he did not write and given the absence of his garrulous dialogue and sweetly obscene sensibilities, the shortcomings of his craft are made all the more apparent. Smith’s directorial style is far too slack for this material, which aims to be an homage to populist ’80s classics like “48 Hrs.” and “Lethal Weapon,” but only winds up resembling one of the bargain-bin knockoffs that floundered in those films’ wake.
Though hardly Smith’s finest hour, the pic is perhaps most regrettable to the extent that it blows its chance to offer wild-man comic Morgan a film vehicle worthy of his anarchic appeal. Here, he stars as Paul, a manic detective who, for unexplained reasons, spends a good portion of the film wiping snot from his nose, drooling and crying — one wonders if this was Morgan’s small form of Brando-esque protest against the material he was given — and who is partnered with Jimmy (Willis), a grizzled officer whose entire character description seems to have been “Bruce Willis-ish.”
The film opens with an interrogation and subsequent stakeout that the partners botch, consequently getting themselves suspended by their hard-ass, by-the-book chief (Sean Cullen). The two are unfazed by the setback, though Jimmy soon confronts a dilemma that does engage him — his daughter is set to be married, and his ex-wife’s smarmy new husband (Jason Lee) is hoping to usurp Jimmy’s paterfamilias bona fides by offering to pay for the extravagant wedding himself.
To raise funds for the wedding, Jimmy attempts to sell a particularly rare baseball card, only to be robbed. He recruits Paul (who, in a wafer-thin subplot, suspects his wife of cheating) to help him recover the card, and this quickly leads them into the orbit of a baseball-loving Mexican drug smuggler (Guillermo Diaz), who’s pursuing a missing car (containing info that will allow him to expand his operation) as well as the mistress of a rival (Ana de la Reguera).
The police action here is boilerplate stuff — despite Smith’s encyclopedic knowledge of genre conventions, he refrains from offering any personal spin on them — but the comedic setpieces have all the hallmarks of directionless, unsupervised improv. In a painfully overextended sequence, Paul and Jimmy arrest a drugged-out burglar (Seann William Scott) who begins pestering Paul by loudly talking over him and repeating his every word, and then telling a long, unfunny knock-knock joke. Such behavior will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been around a particularly bratty 6-year-old, and most of them will wonder why they’ve just paid good money to see a film with similar sensibilities.
Morgan, Lee and bit-parter Adam Brody are all inherently funny, watchable actors, yet none of them find a gag worth selling in Robb and Mark Cullen’s script. Willis is gifted a few moments in which to work his still-considerable charm, though most of the time he seems vaguely distracted, if not irritated.
Production values are hit-and-miss: While the action sequences are competently assembled, a few of the pic’s punchlines and snatches of expository dialogue are rendered incomprehensible through muddy sound and editing.