Sunday, March 14, 2010

Movie Review: "Cop Out"

I should have been the target audience for "Cop Out." I'm a sucker for buddy cop comedies, particularly the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. I think Tracy Morgan's work on "30 Rock" each week is consistently the most outlandish and hilarious comedic work on television. Bruce Willis has been one of my favorite action stars since uttering "Yippe-Kai-Yay" in 1988. And Kevin Smith, "Cop Out's" director, has built a career around fresh, funny movies. Two years back, I drove four hours to Akron, Ohio by myself to see Smith give one of his Q/A's.

So it pains me to report that "Cop Out" is possibly the most epic failure in the careers of all involved. Hardest hit, however, is Smith who, in his first outing directing someone else's screenplay, is left floundering without the wit and emotional honesty that often balances out the crassness and immaturity of his other works. Without Smith's original voice or convictions, "Cop Out" comes across as immature, vulgar and pointless. To make matters worse, it's brutally unfunny and boring. It's easily the worst thing Smith has been associated with--and yes, I have seen "Jersey Girl."

Willis and Morgan play Jimmy and Paul, two long-partnered NYPD detective recently suspended for blowing a drug bust. Jimmy's daughter is engaged to be married and her arrogant stepfather (Jason Lee) wants to rub Jimmy's economic troubles in his face by offering to pay for the wedding. Jimmy, hoping to keep his dignity, refuses the help and decides to sell a mint condition baseball card, which is promptly stolen. Jimmy and Paul try to track down the thief and somehow get involved with Mexican drug dealers and a kidnapped woman and end up on the wrong side of two fellow cops (Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody).

Smith films all of this in homage to the great buddy cop comedies, from "48 Hours" to "Lethal Weapon," complete with scenes of the detectives arguing like an old married couple and the inevitable scene where one partner saves the other's life at just the right time. With a Harold Faltmeyer score and the requisite ribbing from fellow officers, every beat is right from the 80s cop movie playbook. But while Smith knows the lyrics to the song, he can never make it dance.

The great buddy cop comedies worked because the two leads had great chemistry with each other. The classic example, of course, is Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. Go back and watch that series. Even as the film's grew a bit more predictable and sillier, you could always count on the Gibson-Glover chemistry to provide great humor and an emotional undercurrent to the series. The two actors bantered naturally, bounced jokes off each other and came off like they really were old friends.

Negative chemistry can work as well, as Bruce Willis showed in "The Last Boyscout," one of the great cop guilty pleasures. There was never the sense that Willis or costar Damon Wayans really liked each other, but they used that tension to milk humor and grit out of each scene. Even Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker were able to find a comfortable working rhythm to carry the laughs of the "Rush Hour" series.

There's a very palpable sense that Willis and Morgan hated working together here. The actors don't have a rapport or rhythm. Willis scowls and looks annoyed, sometimes smirking if something catches him as funny. Morgan takes his "30 Rock" persona and cranks it to 11, weirdly mispronouncing words and shouting his lines as if sheer volume will force the laughs from the audience. Never do the two actors appear to be working on the same wavelength and, although we're told they've worked together for nine years, there's never a sense of camaraderie, friendship or even respect.

Instead, they shout obscenities, talk about sex and make poop jokes.

And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, one of the times I laughed was at a poop joke. What can I say, I have weaknesses.

Being a Kevin Smith film, one would expect comments about genitalia, sexual practices and general crassness. And although it's discomforting and offensive in Smith's other films, he's able to get away with it because it comes across as honest. In "Chasing Amy" or "Clerks," his characters were offensive, but one never got the chance that he Smith was trying to shock his audience. Instead, there was always the very real sense that Smith was writing characters he was familiar with, and Smith comes from a background that swears and jokes about sex. It may not be the greatest use of his talent, but there was always a strong sense of originality and heart to Smith's best endeavors--"Chasing Amy," "Dogma" and "Clerks 2" work despite their vulgarity because Smith had something he wanted to say, be it about relationships in the 1990s, his Catholic upbringing or the slacker culture realizing it's time to grow up. They're not clean films, but they're honest ones, coming from a filmmaker with something on his mind.

In "Cop Out," there's no emotional underpinning, no personal connection for Smith, yet he still feels the need to toss in vulgar sexual comments and crude language. It comes off as distracting and unnecessary at first and then, by the end becomes exhausting in its immaturity.

Smith's strengths have always been as a writer and here, working from someone else's screenplay, he seems lost and unable to frame what should be an easy joke. For instance, the movie's first scene should have been easy enough: Morgan is going to go interrogate a suspect and, for him, that just means spouting off movie quotes. And it's genuinely funny to see Morgan start shouting every cop cliche: "King Kong ain't got nothing on me!" or "Say hello to my little friend." It gets even funnier when he starts tossing in everything from "The Color Purple" to "Dirty Dancing." There's even a nice chuckle when he leaves the suspect by shouting "These are not the droids you're looking for."

But the scene's momentum is lost by intercutting reaction shots of Willis citing all the movies Morgan is quoting, which robs the scene of energy and only serves to show that Smith is afraid his audience won't get the reaction. For a filmmaker so steeped in geek culture and who made a living by referencing the "Holy Trilogy," it's a bit off-putting to see Smith spoonfeed the jokes to his audience and rob Morgan of his energy. Yes, it's funny to have Morgan quote "Yippee-Kai-Yay" in a Bruce Willis movie. It's NOT funny to have Willis respond "never seen it."

The scene gets even worse as Willis calls the other cops in to laugh at Morgan's shenanigans. Instead of showing him appalled at his partners tactics or using this as a way to show that Jimmy doesn't take Paul seriously, Willis' character actually seems amused...and when everyone's laughing at a character doing something funny, it ceases to be funny. By the time Willis drew a penis on the two-way mirror, the laughs in theater dried up.

And the whole film is made up of miscalculations like that. Morgan shouts lines that aren't funny, Willis scowls and there's never a rhythm or energy to the film. A subplot involving Paul's wife is inert from the start, proving that while Rashida Jones had a charm on "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," filmmakers have no clue how to treat her. Smith, a director short on visual skill, bungles the action scenes, robbing the film of even some good shoot-outs.

In the end, you have to take laughs where you can find them. Yes, I chuckled when Morgan punched a little kid in the crotch. And Seann William Scott shows up in what would be considered the "Joe Pesci role" as a convict bent on annoying Morgan's character. The film's energy picks up a bit when he's on the screen. Pollack and Brody have an interesting rapport and Brody has a great reaction shot at the end that made me want to see a film about those two characters instead. And yes, there's a monologue about pooping that made me laugh...but I was still ashamed.

In the end, to successfully pull off this kind of homage, you have to have more than a funny script (something I don't think 'Cop Out' even started with). You have to be able to mimic the genre's energy, lovingly ape its cliches and--most importantly--have two stars with great chemistry. While watching "Cop Out," my mind kept returning to "Hot Fuzz" and how perfectly it achieved much of the same thing Smith is aiming for here. "Hot Fuzz" worked because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have a fantastic chemistry together and because director Edgar Wright knew that some of the best humor came from cranking up action movie cliches to ludicrous heights. Halfway through the film I turned to my friend and said, "we should have just gone to my house and watched 'Hot Fuzz." At least there were no poop jokes or phallus drawn on the walls there.

Sigh. It's a review that sucks to write because I'm such a fan of so many people involved. Morgan will one day finally come across a director who knows how to control him and if Willis survived "Hudson Hawk" and "Mercury Rising" he'll probably be safe here. But it's Smith who's at a crossroads. If he's truly divorcing himself from writing original screenplays to take on more commercial works, he's going to have to find some way to inject his sensibilities and passion into it. Because his heart is obviously not in "Cop Out" and the result is a mess that should be illegal.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.