"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Maybe not since the Tim Allen romp "Big Trouble" was slated to open the weekend after 9/11 has a big-studio picture found worse timing in the news cycle than "Let's Be Cops." The new doofus-buddy comedy about a couple of 30ish washouts in Los Angeles getting their jollies dressing in LAPD uniforms landed in theaters during some of the worst cop-related mob violence in recent memory. Whatever comes out of the investigation into Michael Brown's death at the hands of a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, it's abundantly clear the small-town police bungled every phase of that initial confrontation and just about every one since, exacerbating the mess by their grotesque deployment of war machinery against regular folks in a St. Louis' 'burb. Cops have rarely looked more over-equipped and yet underprepared. The release of "Big Trouble," with its climactic scene of a nuclear bomb detonating in a small plane, was postponed until 2002. "Let's Be Cops" hit the big screen just as no one much wanted to be a cop.
Not that "Let's Be Cops" really gives a rip. Movies are slow-moving beasts, relative to other media. One ongoing thread in the comedy is how much respect ex-college quarterback Ryan (Jake Johnson) and wannabe video game designer Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.) get as men in uniform, just sauntering down Sunset Boulevard. Women look them in the eye! Men do exactly what they say! Of course the orders they bark at passersby, just to test their newfound Jedi powers, constitute an immediate abuse of authority. But who's to care? They're not in a position of authority, really. They're just goofing, until everyone else takes it seriously, including the comely waitress at their favorite restaurant (Nina Dobrev). Unfortunately that restaurant (ditto the waitress) also has caught the eye of a nasty Eurotrash gangster (a menacing James D'Arcy) who's unfazed by real cops, let alone fake ones.
This is a power trip at its silliest, and director/writer Luke Greenfield lets the dippiness unspool without much of a care through the first two acts. Johnson is hilarious as the aimless schlub who finally discovers his calling in life — drunk on his newfound sense of self-respect, he cranks the cop act up to 11. He YouTubes the lingo while ironing his uni, tricks out an old police cruiser he finds on eBay, and once he falls in with an actual cop (Rob Riggle), he deludes himself into thinking he's a full-fledged arm of the law. The clothes, in this case, make the man.
If you see "Let's Be Cops" in theaters — and you might as well, if you're looking for a date-friendly summer chuckle — it'll be hard not to notice the accidental parallels with the police facing/inciting riots in Missouri. The standoffs in Ferguson have highlighted the dangers of repurposing former military weapons into hometown law enforcement gear. What the hell are cops doing in desert camouflage, patrolling in groups, with assault rifles drawn and pointed at protesters? The critiques coming from ex-Army types called into talking-head duty on cable have been clear: Soldiers are trained not to escalate dangerous situations. It's bush-league to walk around waving machine guns, to park your tactical trucks across a street and train a rifle, on a tripod, at unarmed people. The continuing impression is of police in grossly over their heads, who insist on playing dress-up as if they're in a war zone, and who are subsequently baffled when they find violence flaring up around them.
There's a moment near the climax of "Let's Be Cops" when Ryan finds what looks to be an AR15 hanging on a wall. At first he gives an action-movie coo of delight. Then he picks up the assault rifle, squeezes the trigger, and feels it hose the floor and wall with bullets. He freaks out a little and puts the gun away in favor of something more sensible. Because let's not be those kinds of cops.