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Does anyone really want to see Tracy Morgan shooting at or seriously beating the hell out of someone? Or, to take a step back, can anyone believe Morgan as a veteran New York City policeman to begin with? Such casting would be a tough sell even with top-notch material, but it’s excruciating in Cop Out, the first film helmed by Kevin Smith that he didn’t write.
Apparently even the onetime Clerks wunderkind wants to distance himself from the dreck. Back in December, Smith Twittered that his upcoming release is “not MY movie; a movie I was hired to direct.” The screenplay, which was on Hollywood’s 2008 “Black List” of the best unproduced scripts—somewhat blasphemously alongside Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air—is the feature debut of brothers Robb and Mark Cullen.
At the beginning, it almost sounds like Smith: The opening scene, in which partners Paul (Morgan) and Jimmy (Bruce Willis) interrogate a suspect, features about a dozen film references. But it quickly becomes apparent that the Cullens have instead opted for the cakewalk approach to filmmaking. Easiest way to write a script? Borrow classic dialogue from a slew of hit movies and use them as punchlines. See how funny it is when Paul plays “bad cop” for the first time—in nine years on the force—and just strong-arms the perp with a gun and a loud series of well-known quotes? OK, maybe “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” is amusing for its randomness. And likewise when Paul nicks Die Hard and Willis’ character replies, “Never saw that movie.”
That wink may be a softball, but you’ll appreciate its mild cleverness once the rest of the film goes south. Cop Out, whose title means nothing (the original was marginally funnier: A Couple of Dicks), doesn’t offer an ounce of imagination as a buddy-cop/action-comedy hybrid. Guess what happens when Paul and Jimmy botch a case with their spastic zeal? They get a dressing-down from their boss, along with a suspension. Will they pursue the bad guys anyway? If you even consider a no, you’ve either never seen a movie or are approximately 3 years old.
Of course, there are subplots complicating the central thorn of a Mexican drug cartel. (Fun fact: When any of the thugs speak Spanish in front of the “experienced” big-city policemen, they not only can’t understand a word but at one point think the thugs are speaking French.) Jimmy’s suspension comes at a particularly bad time, because the down payments are due on his daughter’s big wedding and he doesn’t want to be humiliated by letting his ex-wife’s wealthy new squeeze (a very cleaned-up and almost unrecognizable Jason Lee) pay. Paul could care less about his forced vacation, because he’s too preoccupied trying to catch his wife (Rashida Jones) cheating. Both find possible solutions in, respectively, a rare baseball card and a nanny-cam. Both do little but jumble the story in distracting and rarely entertaining ways.
Seann William Scott plays a small role as childish thief, and the former Stifler at least injects some life into his few scenes and gets more laughs than any of his co-stars do during the rest of the movie. (Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody also appear as fellow policemen, but their characters could have been dispatched by less expensive actors with the same comedic results.) Willis phones it in; the best that can be said about his performance is that he looks a whole lot better with a clean-shaven head than with that awful piece he wore during Surrogates. And Morgan is completely wrong. The pouty, entitled, but usually misinformed schtick that he pulls off so well on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock fails to translate. Paul isn’t quite a bumbling cop, but he’s not a great one, either, which leaves him an uninteresting question mark. Combine these character fails with a plot whose every turn can be telegraphed, and Smith’s added to his résumé the action equivalent of Jersey Girl.