Cop Out is indie filmmaker Kevin Smith’s first attempt at working within Hollywood’s big studio system. However, by all accounts, the studio granted Smith the requisite freedom to make Cop Out his way (like an independent film) as if it was all his own creation. Problem is, this movie is not all Smith’s own creation – the script was penned by television writers Robb and Mark Cullen before Smith got involved, making Cop Out the first movie Kevin Smith has directed but not written. This results in a bland, mostly disastrous motion picture. Typical airplane food has more flavour.
The movie, which originally bore the far superior working title of A Couple of Dicks, concerns two veteran NYPD officers Jimmy (Willis) and Paul (Morgan), who are unable to make it 20 minutes into the film without getting suspended for a failed drug bust. Of course, this suspension doesn’t prevent the duo from continuing their own investigation on their own time. Jimmy and Paul begin attempting to track down a stolen baseball card collectible that will help Jimmy pay for his daughter’s wedding. By either coincidence or contrivance (take your pick), this search leads them to a kidnapped Mexican hottie (Reguera) and an on-the-rise drug kingpin (Díaz) who’s wanted by the NYPD.
Unlike the central characters of Cop Out, the entire movie is strictly by-the-book. The screenplay contains all the conventions of the well-worn cop action-comedy genre (it wouldn’t be a cop action-comedy without: an irate police captain suspending the protagonists, a pair of rival detectives in the squad, and the heroes doing something right by the end of the film to get reinstated), but the writers never bothered to colour outside the lines. Kevin Smith would consider this stuff as paying homage to all the great ’80s action-comedies (Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. being the best examples), but there’s more to a homage than using every cliché in the book. A good homage, or an affectionate parody, is a combination of genuine love and respect for the films being referenced, a keen awareness of the genre, and an ability to pull off something fresh. Scream, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are the best examples of this. While it’s clear Smith loves ’80s cop films (let’s face it, who doesn’t?), he failed to do anything innovative with the expression of that love.
The laughs to be experienced in Cop Out are occasional and generally not of the belly variety. The dialogue falls far short of the level of wit we normally expect from a Kevin Smith production, too, because writers Robb and Mark Cullen are simply not as talented as Smith. Sure, there are a few zingers (the Die Hard reference is a laugh-out-loud moment), but not enough. Smith is merely a gun for hire here, and by a studio hiring him as a director but not a writer, they are playing to his weakness. On top of the lukewarm comedy, the action is not especially exciting, and the dramatic elements (Jimmy’s relationship with his daughter, Paul’s concern about his wife possibly cheating on him) are flat. The big bad guy is more cartoonish than threatening, and the production values are generally substandard. Since this is Smith’s first foray into action cinema, one wouldn’t expect first-rate shootouts, so it’d be unfair to judge him too harshly in that respect. But letting Smith edit the picture – whether it was a matter of cost control or a creative decision – was a big mistake. The pacing and flow of the picture is appalling.
With only a handful of action sequences throughout the flick’s running time, Cop Out was almost entirely reliant on the below par dialogue to see it through, most of which takes place between Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. Needless to say, it doesn’t get the job done. Actually, most of the dialogue is between Morgan and the wall. Willis’ talents are shockingly underexploited, which is especially disappointing considering he’s Bruce fucking Willis, a.k.a. John McClane! In Cop Out, Willis is a thankless straight man given barely any clever one-liners or moments of comedy. At least there are a few humorous moments when Seann William Scott shows up. It’s a shame, then, that Scott is only in the movie for 15 minutes tops. Scott steals every scene he’s in, and Cop Out would’ve been worthwhile if he was a main player.
Admittedly, one has to grant Cop Out this much: it tries. Smith tried to inject some life into the proceedings by hiring an ideal cast, hiring the guy who scored Beverly Hills Cop to crank out a catchy score (one of the best things about the flick), and filming it like it’s straight out of the ’80s. While Cop Out is entertaining and amusing from time to time, a handful of laughs and a bunch of unspectacular action sequences are simply not enough to justify an entire motion picture. Someone can get free laughs by surfing the web, and can experience awesome action sequences by watching their favourite ’80s movies again. To paraphrase another critic, it’s easy to recognise why Smith attached himself to Cop Out: he got to work with Bruce Willis, achieve some mainstream recognition, and receive a healthy paycheck. Yet, the final result works out better for Smith than it does for anyone experiencing the fruit of his labours.