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While the films of Kevin Smith are admittedly not everyone's bag, I tend to like his stuff. Smith, like his 1990s indie-flick classmate Quentin Tarantino, tends to go for the geekgasm in his movies, seeding in both broad and incredibly narrow references to the things he loves — comic books, Star Wars, weed, sex and movies, just to name a few. While that can lead to the feeling that he's having a better time with his films than you are — witness “Mallrats” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” — he is also a filmmaker who understands what it is to be a brainy, aging Gen-X'er dog paddling through a sea of popular culture. For that, I salute him.
All that said, when you're as narrowly focused as Smith can be sometimes, it can lead to problems finding an audience. The failure of his vastly under-appreciated flick “Jersey Girl” (a victim of the poo-splash from the might-be-the-worst-film-of-the-decade “Gigli,” which also starred Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) and his most recent vehicle, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” are great examples of how Smith's reputation for fanboy navel-gazing has started keeping audiences away in droves, even when he's doing something right.
Smith is trying to break that losing streak by going legit-director with his new film “Cop Out.” Unlike everything else he's ever done, Smith didn't write “Cop Out” (the honors were handled by newbie screenwriters Robb and Mark Cullen this time) but it often feels like he did. With culty references to baseball card collecting, Batman, Star Wars and obscure movie quotes, as well as some uncomfortable references to chimp-on-chimp oral sex, it's got Smith's fingerprints all over it. If he didn't do an uncredited pitch-in on the writing, it was surely re-written with him squarely in mind as the director.
In the film, Bruce Willis plays Jimmy Moore, a long-in-the-tooth NYPD detective. In true buddy-cop form, he's saddled with a lovable lout of a partner, Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan). When the film opens, Jimmy is in a bind. He needs to pay for his daughter's megalowedding, to the tune of $40,000. Otherwise, his daughter's seedy, well-off stepfather — who is angling to supplant work-a-day Jimmy as Numero Uno in the girl's life — will spring for the tab. That's a lot of change on a police salary, so Jimmy decides to sell a prized baseball card that he has had since he was a kid; a card that could be worth up to $80,000. When the card is stolen, however, Jimmy and Paul wind up making a deal with a local drug dealer who fenced it: find his stolen Mercedes and return it, and Jimmy can have his card back. The deal leads to its own set of problems, however, when Jimmy and Paul find out why the drug kingpin wants the car back so badly: the drug dealer's mistress in the trunk, who knows the whereabouts of a USB drive with the account numbers and passwords to a Mexican mafia bank account worth $750 million. Meanwhile, Paul is fighting his own problems — namely, jealousy and a pretty young wife he can't spend enough time with thanks to his job.
Smith tries hard here to channel 1980's cop flicks like “Lethal Weapon” and the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise, even calling tunesmith Harold Feltermeyer — the guy who scored the Beverly Hills Cop flicks, and wrote the iconic “Axel F” tune from the first movie — out of retirement for an old-school, synthesizer-heavy score. Mostly Smith succeeds in evoking the genre, with a lot of funny lines and some great action. As with the films Smith wrote himself, however, there are times when it's clear he's having more fun than we are, with the film sometimes veering away from comedy to the land of absurdity, where most films not written by Mel Brooks go to die. Willis is good here playing the same guy he's played in everything from the four “Die Hard” movies to “The Whole Nine Yards.” He's most assuredly the straight man. Problem is, Tracy Morgan — try as the studios might to make him the next Chris Rock — just ain't able to cut the mustard in the acting department. He absolutely chews the scenery, delivering every line in the same ain't-I-cute tone that made him a supporting player during his time on Saturday Night Live. If that weren't enough, he has a bad habit of drooling when he gets animated, and Smith — who also edited the flick — lets him go right ahead and drool, with long ropes of saliva spraying from his mouth at least three times over the course of the film. It's enough to make your stomach want to cop out in your popcorn bucket.
That said, “Cop Out” has its moments at times. Though the plot seems to go in circles, it has enough laughs and fast-paced gunplay to keep most viewers interested, especially those who have fond memories of a cat named Axel Foley. If buddy/cop movies weren't your thing the first time they were in vogue, though, you might want to pass this one by.