Cop Out (2010): Kevin Smith’s Studio Film, Misfire

Sixteen years ago Kevin Smith detonated public consciousness with “Clerks,” a $27,500 black and white rude comedy that showcased his adroit mixture of scabrous humor, off the cuff sensibility and low-brow aesthetic to delirious and often sensational effect.
The seven movies he’s made since then have been hit and miss. His first major studio film, “Cop Out,” plays like a Xerox of a copy of one of his early films. It is a strange melding of a blue humor applied to a corporate product and the results are largely disastrous. The title is an implicit acknowledgement of corporate compromise (the far more interesting and provocative working title was “A Couple of Dicks”).

Our Grade: D+ (* out of *****)

The movie tries to re-animate a staple of Eighties genre movies, the interracial cop buddy film. It has the impudent play of male vanity, bravado and banter that is the key ingredient to all of Smith’s work. It is also so poorly and laboriously assembled that it acquires from the start an air of desperation.
Smith is an independent director who has flirted with the mainstream. He was reportedly commissioned to reboot the “Superman” franchise by writing a script that was to start Nicolas Cage, but that fell through. He was attached to a remake of “Fletch,” and this movie appear somewhat a shotgun arrangement of some of those pieces; he even has that film’s composer, Harold Faltermeyer, write the new film’s synthesized score.
This is the first of Smith’s eight features he has directed though not written. The script is the first produced feature of the brothers Mark Cullen and Robb Cullen. It is possible the only plausible way to look at the movie is that it is an extended riff or one of those sketch driven parody titles, like the “Scary Movie” franchise.
Smith has already said in interviews that he had been assigned to make the film. Smith has tried to make the project fairly personal. His movies have largely been set in the dingy, down market environs of New Jersey.
Smith is a poet laureate of ephemera and pop art references, especially “Star Wars” movies, comic books, television, baseball and cartoons. He worked as an actor, playing the computer specialist geek in the “Live Free and Die Hard.” Smith is directing Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, playing Brooklyn detectives Jimmy Monroe (Willis) and Paul Hodges (Morgan).
Smith’s movies have sometimes broken the fourth wall and are laced with self-referential mentions of arcane data. In a Smith film, for better or worse, the characters always live in their own self-made bauble that is largely unconcerned with the outside world. Right at the start of “Cop Out,” the movie, very bluntly, lays out its hand and preferred mode of address. Willis is the taciturn tough guy, Morgan the anarchic, loopy second banana who’s unhappy about his implied secondary status.
The movie desperately tries to blend the incident-packed humor interlaced with violence of movies like “48 Hrs.” or “Midnight Run,” but from the start, there is almost no emotional investment in the material.
It opens at the police station, on the day marking their ninth anniversary as partners. Morgan’s Hodges browbeats Monroe into taking lead interrogator against a drug informant. Morgan contorts his body and hams it up, reciting famous movies lines and quotations. Immediately the comedy is not only self-referential, it’s self-satisfying; the only problem is there’s no enjoyment had by those watching.
The information they glean leads to a poorly designed and executed stake out that ends disastrously with the two cops being suspended for 30 days without pay. That is the worst possibly scenario for Monroe. His daughter (Michelle Tractenberg) is about to get married and his former wife’s smarmy second husband (Smith regular Jason Lee) is lording it over him.
Desperate to raise some money, Monroe reluctantly decides to sell a highly valuable baseball card. At the pawnshop where it is being appraised, a brazen young thief Dave (Seann William Scott) steals the card. Monroe takes aggressively actions to recover the card. The two criminal storylines converge when the card lands in the hands of a Mexican drug boss and baseball aficionado whose tripped out younger brother, it turns out, is the same drug supplier the two cops tried to arrest in the undercover sting that went awry.
Effectively stripped of his police authority, Monroe enters into a pact with the drug boss to recover a stolen Mercedes. The search for the missing car produces yet another narrative reversal, the emergency of a beautiful young woman (Ana de la Reguera) who’s been kidnapped because of valuable inside information she is privy of.
The script is very slipshod and hastily constructed and it’s built on a series of conveniently arranged circumstances that are more dreamed up than authentically arrived at. It yokes together different strands and just tries to throw them together. The tone is manic and pounding, rather than loose and free.
The gags and the comebacks and the personal, highly sexualized banter (which felt authentic and realistic in Smith’s early work) feel overdone, solicitous and off-putting. The former “Saturday Night Live” performer, Morgan feels constrained and flummoxed; the part is poorly written, and he overcompensates with the thinness of the character by going mannered and over the top. Willis has had some fun with his own person and film identity in the past, but he’s just walking through this film.
Perhaps Smith did not have the willingness or power to challenge Willis, but it’s another example of a good actor turning in a very subpar performance. The only performer who really salvages his reputation is Seann William Scott, who has some funny moments as the verbally dexterous criminal with a penchant for anticipating what his rivals are about to say.
There’s also an uncomfortable racial awkwardness to a great deal of the material that makes “Cop Out” feel rather unseemly. The opening Morgan monologue is dangerously close to a minstrel act. (Not to mention a recurring and very abysmal subplot involving his raging insecurities about his wife’s alleged infidelities.)
Worst of all, the Mexican criminal lords that become the movie’s traditional heavies are so lazily conceived, overscaled and outrageously drawn that turns “Cop Out” not only into a bad film though a somewhat unpleasant one. Kevin Smith is not the first or last director defeated by the system. As the title suggests, this project was forlorn from the start.
By Patrick Z. McGavin