Status: In theaters (opened 2/26/10)
Directed By: Kevin Smith
Written By: Robb Cullen & Mark Cullen
Cinematographer: David Klein
Starring: Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan, Seann William Scott, Ana de la Reguera
I’m not at all ashamed to call myself a Kevin Smith fan, and to say that I’ve enjoyed watching his up-and-down career thus far. While he’s made some real duds (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), he also made a couple of the great generation-defining films of the 90s (Clerks and, especially, Chasing Amy), as well as one of my favorite under-appreciated films of all time, Dogma. One thing that was abundantly clear with his last film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, though, was that he is at this point in his career thoroughly out of new ideas. It makes a lot of sense, then, that he’d finally turn to directing a feature film that he didn’t write, not just to expand his horizons, but also to freshen up his comedic chops in a way.
Unfortunately, the vehicle for this experiment is Cop Out, a thoroughly uninteresting, unfunny, and unoriginal buddy-cop comedy. I’ve always found Smith’s least admirable trait as a writer to be his obtuse manner of forcing film references into his work (the main characters’ names in Mallrats—near-direct facsimiles of those from Jaws—being the most ready example). He does this as a director, too (the scar-comparing scene from Chasing Amy comes to mind—again, a facsimile of the similar scene in Jaws, even down to the set decoration). In Cop Out, Smith more or less devotes an entire film to this type of homage-by-theft. Take all of the cliches from 1980s cop movies, starting with Beverly Hills Cop (“Axel F”-style synth music and all), throw them in a blender, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Cop Out is all about. To get even closer to the experience, add in Bruce Willis in the most phoning-it-in performance of his career and a couple of annoyingly over-the-top slapstick acts from Tracy Morgan and Seann William Scott. Then picture all of this directed by a guy who’s used to shooting his own witty dialogue in bland two-shots.
The film primarily relies on the relationship between its two main characters, a seen-it-all cop named Jimmy (Willis) and his buffoon of a partner (Morgan). They go through the requisite scene of getting chewed out by the chief and being suspended, then get involved in a side quest involving a valuable stolen baseball card, and finally stumble their way into solving the case that it all started with. Along the way there are some really cringe-worthy story points, including a cat burglar who likes to take a shit in his victims’ houses (Scott) and an Hispanic gang lord (Guillermo Díaz) who likes to pray for forgiveness immediately before killing people. It’s cliche on top of cliche, and none of them are particularly clever. Sure, there are some funny moments here and there, but for the most part the jokes are of the roll-your-eyes variety. The jokes continue even during the attempts at action sequences, which universally fall just as flat.
The screenplay, by Robb and Mark Cullen, was on the 2008 “black list”, meaning it was at one point considered to be among the best (or most-liked) un-produced screenplays in Hollywood (at the time, it was called A Couple of Dicks, but that was before the fiasco with Kevin Smith’s last film’s title, where many outlets would only advertise it by the name Zack and Miri). I’m not sure what anybody saw in it, other than a few funny lines among a generic and mostly unfunny story. I have to assume that making it an 80s tribute was Smith’s idea, as that fits his M.O., although I don’t know that for sure. What I do know is that very little in Cop Out actually works, from the jokes to the action to the references. And on top of this, it’s made in Smith’s notoriously bland directorial and editing style, which make all of his films feel like first-year film school exercises (though usually he has better material—his own—to carry his films where the visual style falls short).
One more thing about Smith’s style of homage: it’s hard to put my finger on the “why” of it, but for some reason when Quentin Tarantino does a similar thing, it works—it feels like a tribute to the great films throughout history that have inspired him. When Smith does it, though, it just feels lame and overly forced. I suppose it’s a matter of degree, mostly in terms of what the directors bring to their own material stylistically (Tarantino brings a lot, Smith hardly anything). It’s a fine line, but easy for me to say that I find these two directors in particular to be quite clearly on opposite sides of it. Cop Out is, in a lot of ways, the most extreme example of this. Everything about the film seems to fit into Smith’s brand of uninspired recycling of things he’s liked in movies he grew up with but isn’t able to adequately recreate himself.