by Brett Parker
Kevin Smith is a filmmaker known for directing dialogue that not only delivers raunchiness and vulgarity in a delightful symphony, but reveals staggering insights into pop culture. The characters in Smith’s world heavily discuss comic books, constantly reference movies, and even know all the words to Run DMC songs. Sometimes they take on the bizarre, self-reflexive feat of criticizing the very cinematic situation they find themselves inhabiting. His characters spend so much time dissecting clichés in entertainment that his films often manage to become devoid of them in the process.
When Kevin Smith revealed that his latest project, Cop Out, was to be a throwback to the buddy cop comedies prominent in the 80s, I half-expected a thoughtful spoof that put the tired conventions of the genre through the ringer. How entertaining it would be to see buddy cops discussing buddy cop clichés as they were enacting them! To lace all that with Smith’s trademark wit and color would truly be a delight. But unfortunately, Smith has long-strayed from his raw indie wagon and has settled into a comfort zone of creating formulaic Hollywood comedies devoid of his sharpest instincts. Cop Out is, disappointingly, no exception. Smith doesn’t really bring creative insights to the material but essentially tries to recreate a typical cop flick from the 80s, although one that’s not nearly as good as its predecessors. But Smith is no sleepwalking zombie, however, and this sitcom isn’t without some juice. Smith’s greatest strength here is that he knows just how to unleash Tracy Morgan’s side-splitting zaniness on the big screen, producing consistent laughs throughout.
You’ve heard the scenario a million times: one’s a straight-arrow cop who plays by the book and has a no-nonsense approach to his job. The other is a wise-cracking loose cannon with a knack for creating effortless mayhem anywhere he goes. Together, this duo teams up for a fragile partnership that produces high tension and big laughs. Things heat up with their alliance, however: people get shot, cars crash, things get blown up, the Captain wants their suspension with their badges on his desk, etc. The only way the duo can redeem themselves is if they work out their differences and take down an elaborate criminal ring all by themselves. In the end, guns get fired, the bad guys get taken down, and the bond between the unlikely partners grows much deeper.
Kevin Smith has undergone a curious transition in his career. He used to create gritty indie comedies that were treasured for their defiance from typical conventions. Now he seems to be celebrating the clichés and churning them out enthusiastically. You can see how recent films like Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri Make A Porno bear some of his signature trademarks, but they seem to be lacking the freshness of his smirking edge. His recent works seem more adherent to genre formulas then to his own flights of anarchic fancy. Cop Out suffers from the same problem; Smith doesn’t really put his own distinctive stamp on the material. This is his first film with a script not written at all by him (the screenplay was concocted by the TV writing duo of Mark Cullen & Rob Cullen), so the film lacks his naughty sparkle and colorful inspiration. There’s no clever hook or variation to the premise, the whole idea is to bring deranged wackiness to a familiar plotline. Still, this one feels inferior to its earlier influences.
Part of the problem is that Smith has no idea how to stage an action scene properly. Both the camera and the editing are way too jumpy and frantic, never allowing the viewer to get a full grasp of the character’s movement in relation to their space. The action scenes are so clumsy and weightless, they evaporate rapidly from the mind. It’s almost as if Smith knows he can’t do action properly so he hurries past it in hopes that no one will notice. Smith has often been accused (sometimes unjustly) of having a poor sense of camera framing. Never before has that been stronger felt than with his shaky work here.
If there’s one thing Smith knows how to do wonderfully, it’s let the camera settle on scenes of wacky and hilarious dialogue. It’s scenes like this that give Cop Out its strength. Occasionally we come across routine scenes that are played for extensive silliness and it generates enough laughs and smiles to keep us delighted. There’s a frantically cockeyed opening sequence in which Hodges violently interrogates a witness while hurling countless movie quotes at him with great intensity (“NOBODY PUTS BABY IN THE CORNER!”). Both Monroe and Hodges present an inspired telephone gag meant to insult their rival detectives on the force (played by Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody). And there’s a great bit where Hodges imagines his wife (Rashida Jones) cheating on him, inspiring what sounds like a very funny Cary Grant impression.
Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan seem like the unlikeliest of duos, and indeed they don’t have the easiest chemistry, but they do generate a fascinating interest and it keeps the movie alive. Willis can play a role like Monroe in his sleep, and he appears to be humorously half-asleep this time out. This is essentially Morgan’s movie to steal, and he does so with great comic insanity. Morgan is one of the funniest comedians working in showbiz today. Read any random interview with the 30 Rock star and you’re guaranteed at least five laughs. He conveys the image of a sugar-high adolescent enjoying a goofball spree in the adult world. His outsized silliness is just what this script needs to shake things up. Watching the straight-edged Willis bounce off of the stark raving lunacy of Morgan is a well of twisted amusement, and it all but saves this flick.
Cop Out is commercial pop with occasional delights that hold up if you care to remember it. You’re not as contemptuous of its familiarity as you’d expect to be. The film has a lot of nice little touches. Sean William Scott has a funny walk-on as a stoner thief and I absolutely loved the throwback score from genre veteran Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Tango & Cash). His nostalgic 80s sounds are worth the price of admission alone. So if you want an exceptional buddy cop flick, check out 48 Hours, Rush Hour, and Starsky & Hutch. If you want to see Kevin Smith at his most biting and intelligent, check out Chasing Amy. Now if you have two hours to kill and want to have a laughing fit at the hands of that loveable maniac Tracy Morgan, Cop Out just might be for you.