There are generally two camps on Kevin Smith, the Jersey auteur and cult of personality behind Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy, and other foul-tongued provocations: Either you believe he’s the raw, honest, hilariously crude voice of the people, or you most emphatically do not. But few from either end of the divide would claim that Smith’s direction is his greatest strength; he may work well with actors, but “perfunctory” is the kindest word to describe his filmmaking chops. So the idea of a studio bringing in Smith as a director-for-hire makes about as much sense as the Yankees tapping CC Sabathia as a pinch-runner. With Cop Out, Smith works from a script other than his own for the first time—this one penned by siblings Mark and Robb Cullen—but his slack direction siphons the energy out of this tongue-in-cheek throwback to ’80s mismatched-buddy comedies.
Any hope that the Cullens’ script might enforce a discipline Smith rarely exhibits on his own gets extinguished in the very first scene, when it becomes painfully apparent what Smith will be bringing to the table—improvisation, and lots of it. With their suspect in the interrogation room, Brooklyn detectives Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, partners for nine years (though with a chemistry that suggests they teamed up only yesterday), argue over who gets first crack at him. Morgan wins out and proceeds on an “homage”-based line of questioning that has him riffing wildly on characters from movies, from Al Pacino in Scarface to Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple. Smith lurches from the strained unreality of scenes like that one into a needlessly soupy plot involving Willis’ efforts to retrieve a rare baseball card from a Mexican drug kingpin in order to pay for his daughter’s wedding.
Cop Out piles on the references to action-comedies past: the Harold Faltermeyer score, the perpetually ticked-off captain behind the desk, Seann William Scott doing his best Joe Pesci in the back of a police car, Willis giving himself a nod by claiming never to have seen Die Hard. A few of the gags score—letting Morgan free-associate isn’t always the smartest idea, but there are some diamonds in the silt—but most of them sound like Smith thumbing lazily through his dirty-joke file. Still, the hangout scenes in Cop Out are at least in Smith’s wheelhouse; whenever he has to deliver the obligatory action beats or tie up the many loose ends, he seems actively bored. The shrug of a denouement doesn’t say “the movie’s over” so much as “get me the hell out of here.”