Cop Out confirms that Kevin Smith is a brilliant writer but a mediocre director. There are plenty of belly laughs in this wayward film, but the plot trickles out too slowly with an antagonist that is hardly worth the time. Tracy Morgan’s comic muscle flexes wildly, and Bruce Willis is delightful as the deadbeat straight man, so the laughs abound. When you’re not laughing, however, you’ll probably be looking around the theater wondering why everyone slapped down the price of popcorn in the first place.
Artistically, the film aims for Beverly Hills Cop but falls closer to Dragnet. The real problem is our bad guy, Poh Boy, a Mexican drug lord with a penchant for pricey sports memorobilia. His “tweak”, if you will, is that he speaks like Baby Huey and is named after a sandwich. Otherwise, he’s just a drug dealer like any other: heavily armed and cocksure. I’ll get to our ludicrous heroes in a moment, but I need to stress that this movie could have been saved with a better baddie. The jokes flow like beer at a bachelor party but nothing holds them together. There is no reason not to clip this movie up into a couple of YouTube replays.
Anyway, let’s head to Tracy Morgan, who plays Paul Hodges, the lovably goofy detective. His comic gift is difficult to define, but it is a force to be reckoned with nonetheless. He has mastered the art of the non-sequiter, the rant, and the rage. The running joke that surrounds all of his characters is that they are terminally out to lunch, until you realize that a vulnerable heart beats beneath the blunder-prone exterior. One moment that stands out in particular is a scene where the team takes a non-English speaking witness to a Mexican restaurant for some translation. As the girl recounts a tale of horror entirely in Spanish, Paul listens, slowly and guiltily shoving tortilla chips into his mouth. With each crunch, the belly laugh gets harder to resist.
Sitting across from Mr. Morgan in that scene is Bruce Willis as Jimmy Monroe, the Hardy to Paul’s Laurel. Mr. Willis is no stranger to comedy, but we get to see his masterful straight man on full display here. Whenever he is off alone tugging on his own plot threads, Mr. Willis is serviceable enough, trudging through the weak plot surrounding Jimmy. It is when you get him together with a screwball like Morgan that the fireworks fly. Again, I’ll refer to the scene in the Mexican restaurant. Without his eagle eyes starting down Paul’s social ineptitude, the joke simply doesn’t work. We close the laughter circuit with nothing more than a glare.
Another thing that makes that scene work is the editing, perhaps the unsung hero of comedy. There are a handful of laughs that come entirely from smartly placed cuts, and I am happy to report that the editor was none other than director Kevin Smith. Sure, I may slight his directing, but the fact remains that the man knows how to cut a laugh or two. Towards the end of the film, a creeping gunman’s surprised reaction exploded the theater with laughter. It is carefully placed laughs like this which elevate the film, at least a bit, into something worth laughing with (not at).
So perhaps it is unfair, a cop out (I’ve made it this far without saying it), to place all the blame on Mr. Smith for the film’s overall mediocrity. Certainly, Robb and Mark Cullen, who wrote the thing, should take the brunt of the criticism. It’s difficult to tell. This is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Of course it’s a comedy, but the level of goofiness is never quite decided on throughout. Perhaps Mr. Smith didn’t take the silly factor far enough. More than likely, however, is that the story just flat out sucked. Writing funny and writing plot can be very difficult to do at the same time. Unfortunately for us, Mr. Smith is gifted at both while both Cullens may need to work on the latter.
A few other strands are worth mentioning. The score, by Harold Faltermeyer, is a lesson in aural hilarity. It strikes the perfect balance of homage and parody, something the rest of the film failed to do. Sean William Scott shines as a third musketeer wedged between Paul and Jimmy. Kevin Pollak makes for a decent police foil to Mr. Willis, however his sidekick, Adam Brody, does nothing to impress. As Hunsaker and Mangold, the duo adds little.
So there you have it. Cop Out is heavy on the laughs but low on cohesion. Mr. Smith really should have taken the reigns on the script and refined it to a point that it was ready for the big screen. Which is not to say it’s a film with no value whatsoever. There are at least three moments where milk will shoot out your nose, which is a fairly high amount of big laughs in a single feature. So check it out and laugh until it hurts, just don’t expect much of anything to happen in this film.