Monday, July 19, 2010

On DVD: "Cop Out"

I was talking with a friend about Kevin Smith's Cop Out, a buddy-cop action-comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, before its release last February. We seemed to agree that while we wanted it to be an enjoyable goof from one of our favorite comic filmmakers, it sure did look like the kind of terrible formulaic movie that we'd see a poster for on the wall of Morgan's dressing room on 30 Rock. "It'll be one or the other," I told him. Joke was on me. It's both.

Willis and Morgan are Jimmy and Paul, Brooklyn cops and partners for nine long years. When a bust goes awry, they're suspended without pay at the worst possible time--Jimmy's daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) is about to have a very expensive wedding, and her smarmy stepdad (Jason Lee) would like nothing more than to pay the bill and humiliate Jimmy. He decides to sell his prize 1952 Andy Pafko baseball card in order to fund the nuptials, but that plan goes south when he's robbed by Dave (Sean William Scott). The partners track Dave down to get the card back, and end up fumbling their way into the drug-running activities of Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), and just might get their jobs back by making a big bust.

The tried-and-true conventions of the genre--the racially mismatched partners, one of them a motor-mouthed loose cannon; the stripping of the guns and badges; the rivalry with other detectives; the stumbling into a big case with their breaking-all-the-rules shenanigans; etc.--have been wheezy for well over a decade now, and the screenplay by Robb and Mark Cullen isn't some sort of post-modern riff or parody. Director Smith instead plays it as an affectionate homage to the '80s action comedies he grew up on--it's the kind of movie that could easily play on a double-bill with Fletch (dig that closing music), Beverly Hills Cop, or Running Scared, right down to the synthy Harold Faltermeyer score.

Those films, even the best of them, were disposable entertainments--sheer popcorn. By attempting to replicate them and just make a casual action-comedy, it could be argued that Smith is wasting his considerable talent on a glossy copy of throwaway pictures*. It's a credible argument, hampered only by the fact that, in spite of its derivative nature and frequently weak writing, Cop Out is a good-natured and genuinely likable movie. Some of the humor is strained, and the picture has trouble firing up its own engines in the opening scenes, but there are laughs to be had here--some of them from Morgan's over-the-top performance, some from Willis' unflappable (and finely-tuned) persona, some from Smith's infectious sense of a good time being had.

The film's misfortune is that it doesn't have a screenplay as smart as we've come to expect from Smith. The script, by TV writers Robb and Mark Cullen, is pretty dopey stuff, even by cop movie standards; it too often settles for cheap, easy vulgarity and lazy punch lines (even including, God forbid, a kid who kicks Morgan in the nuts). When Morgan and Willis, on a stakeout, discover that Dave enjoys, um, using the facilities when he's robbing a house, Morgan's long, dull riff about the power of his shits isn't funny, because it's the kind of material that expects us to think the mere mention of something scatological is funny in and of itself. It's not. Smith's screenplays (the good ones, at least), begin with the shit joke, and then take it somewhere unexpected. A scene like that (and similar ones scattered throughout Cop Out) leave us feeling like, mid-budget lark or not, the talented filmmaker is playing below his abilities.

Cop Out marks Smith's first time directing a film he didn't write, and some will find that perplexing--he was always a writer first, and the first to cut down his skill at staging scenes and moving the camera. But it's a well-made, good-looking picture, and his shoot-outs and chase scenes are smoothly, professionally handled. There are complaints to be registered, but they're all intellectual ones; from the standpoint of goofy fun (which is all they're going for anyway), Smith and crew mostly bring it off.

*This seemed to be the general tone of the film's considerable volume of negative reviews (at least the ones that weren't knee-jerk dismissals, like Rex Reed's)--that we expect better from Kevin Smith. Smith, usually a good sport about bad reviews (he's talked more shit on "Jersey Girl" than any of his underwhelmed critics), took these oddly personal, launching a bizarre meme in subsequent interviews and on his Twitter feed that critics shouldn't get to see movies for free. The whole thing was kind of sad to watch--a pretty clear case of sour grapes from a director who certainly wasn't talking about charging admission to critics when they were falling all over themselves for "Chasing Amy".

"Cop Out" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 20th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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