It’s easy to dump on Kevin Smith for embracing his creative slump and giving himself, fans and critics alike a major break with a no-risk project like Cop Out. The project, which Smith didn’t write, ostensibly should force him to learn how to become a more technically competent filmmaker and takes him out of his “personal” comfort zone. With Cop Out, Smith shrugs to his audience to let them know that he knows he’s lost his mojo and understands full well just how much he needs a vacation. That having been said, using Cop Out as prime evidence, there really doesn’t seem to be that much difference between a “Kevin Smith movie” and a movie directed by Kevin Smith.
Save for a change of milieu, Cop Out’s not that much different from one of his “View Askew” titles. Screenwriters Robb and Mark Cullen kick the film off with an utterly incomprehensible interrogation sequence that relates how buddy cops Jimmy Monroe and Paul Hodges (Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan) operate. According to Jimmy, the pair don’t follow protocol so much as they mimic or, “pay Ho-mah-Zhe” to their favorite cop shows and movies. Paul beats his witness while quoting everything from Scarface to Schindler’s List, because he knows he has no real pressure to deliver results. His job—the badge, the gun, the position of power—and the movie in general is pure wish fulfillment in the same way that the all of Smith’s other comedies, in one form or another, are. If such a thing is possible, Smith just invented the slacker buddy cop comedy.
All of Smith’s films allow their protagonists to solve their personal problems several degrees removed from reality. They can and often do say whatever comes to mind, which digs them into a hole first but eventually always digs them back out. These guys don’t have to screen their thought processes, as is most apparent when Paul begins to ramble at Jimmy about how much he shits while they’re on a stake-out. His rant naturally wraps up with a reference to The Warriors—something to the effect of “My shit’s so big that when I get to the toilet, my neighbors says ‘Oh, Warriors, come out and plaaay”—which is effectively silly but makes absolutely no sense. It’s just there because it had to be said. “I was in the moment,” Jimmy says later. “And the moment said, ‘Hit him.’” Our heroes aren’t simple-minded, just over-privileged. How meta.
While Jimmy and Paul run around Brooklyn struggling to resolve a wishy-washy procedural plot, which primarily revolves around Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), a local drug-dealer’s scheme to expand his operation, they make their homelife coincide with their genre formula-dictated worklife. Policework allows the boys to feel like the big men that their families refuse to acknowledge them as. Jimmy hasn’t paid alimony to his ex-wife in years and now, after being suspended without pay for a month, is expected to pay $48,000 for his daughter’s wedding or else his kid’s step-father (Jason Lee, natch) will. Paul likewise is climbing the walls at the thought that his wife might be sleeping with their British neighbor (his imagined seduction sequence, all slow-motion and comic book realism, is a highlight of the film that climaxes when “the other man” whips out a monocle). If anything, Jimmy and Paul treat their policework like a disposable responsibility (Paul has a whole stash of them in his car in case of emergencies because he always loses them). These guys know the rules of Smith’s films: they’re more likely to get hurt by a passive-aggressive dinner conversation or nanny cam footage than in the line of duty.
All rationalizing aside, Cop Out works on a basic level because it’s happy to be unadventurous. It doesn’t even try very hard to establish its characters as throwbacks to the ‘80s cop dramas that are clearly the backbone of Jimmy and Paul’s training (Harold Faltermeyer, famous for composing Beverly Hill Cop’s theme song, provides a synthy score but stray allusions aside, that’s pretty much it). Thankfully the Cullens never rely on the smug, over-insistent meta-comedy that Shane Black has made his career as a Hollywood insider from. Instead they’re content to just crank out an affably forgettable variation on a well-worn generic setting.
The few times Cop Out does bring out of its comfortable trajectory is when Sean William Scott, playing a mouthy informant with a serious case of ADHD, steals the show and makes the film’s comedy more about breakneck comic timing than unmemorable jokes or stock characters. Here the film can fully stretch out and take time for a piss take or two (Smith’s quick-editing is utterly grating; no doubt his Warner Bros. handlers wanted him to deliver a product that moves more quickly than his usual work so he happily overcompensated). Morgan and Willis make a decent team. It’s a real shame that they got saddled with Smith during a new stage of his career-long transitional phase.