Heartbroken by the disappointing box-office grosses of his last film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, filmmaker Kevin Smith - a smart, shrewd storyteller who has compensated for his lack of cinematic flair with a sharp and hilariously vulgar wit - decided to do something new: Put himself on the market as a director for hire.
The result, Cop Out, is the first film Smith has directed that he didn't write. It also is, without question, the worst picture he has made - a soulless, witless, landfill contraption that Smith once would have mocked mercilessly. Cop Out is a straight-faced parody of 1980s cop-buddy pictures, complete with a cheesy synth score by Beverly Hills Cop's Harold Faltermeyer.
But making fun of such a tired genre is as redundant as a stand-up comic's doing an Andrew Dice Clay impersonation. The funny simply is not there. The plot centers on a pair of veteran NYPD cops played by Bruce Willis, more engaging on TV talk shows than he is here, and Tracy Morgan, so devoid of screen presence you wonder if 30 Rock was just an accident.
On their ninth anniversary as partners, the pair run afoul of a gang of Latino baddies who are portrayed in such a stereotypically racist manner you feel magically teleported back into one of those Steven Seagal movies in which villains were defined primarily by ethnicity. Maybe that impression was the point, but like the rest of the movie, it isn't much of a joke.
For much of Cop Out, Smith's usually astute sense of humor is thrown off course. An early scene in which Morgan interrogates a suspect by quoting famous lines from other movies is amusing in concept, but Smith uses so many zoom shots and close-ups that the sequence just comes off as noisy and shrill. Having a Mexican immigrant (Ana de la Reguera) be unable to tell the difference between "Hi'' and "Bye'' just makes her seem mentally impaired, and the gag is repeated so often you start wishing the bad guys would bump her off.
The only truly funny bits in Cop Out - which either feel improvised or bear Smith's distinct writing stamp - come courtesy of Seann William Scott as an acrobatic thief who has an uncontrollable compulsion for mocking other people, even when he's sitting in the back of a police car on his way to jail. Scott, an underrated actor, brings a jolt of energy, but his role is a minor one. The rest of the film, which affords Smith his largest budget to date and proves he has no business shooting elaborate action sequences, is just dead air. Cop Out was originally titled A Couple of Dicks, until TV networks refused to air ads for a film with that title before 9 p.m. Sell Out would have been a more honest title.
(* out of ****)