In retrospect, “Cop Out” can be seen as a pivotal and hugely influential film in Smith’s directing career. Easily his unhappiest production, and most underwhelming end product, the fact that it remains his highest-grossing movie to date provoked a significant change in Smith as a filmmaker – a change for the better. But before we get to those sunlit uplands, let’s descend into the valley of despair that is “Cop Out”.
After a botched attempt to capture a drug dealer, NYPD Detectives Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis) and Paul Hodges (Tracey Morgan) are suspended for one month by their Captain. To finance his daughter’s wedding (and upstage his ex-wife’s new husband) Jimmy decides to sell his rare baseball card but when he takes it into the memorabilia store to sell, the pair find themselves caught up in a robbery. While they use their police training to track down the thieves, Paul has another case he’s trying to crack: he’s convinced his wife is cheating on him and will go to any lengths to catch her in the act.
On paper, this sounds like a fairly conventional 80’s-style buddy cop action comedy, but the key difference here is that very paper wasn’t written by Smith. It’s his first, and to date only, foray into directing a script that he didn’t also write. It’s also the first time he was working for a major studio. Maybe he took the job on because he sensed after “Zack And Miri Make A Porno” failed to be the breakthrough he hoped, this would be the best path for him but in the end it turned out to be the worst possible combination of elements. Smith seems uncomfortably constrained by the circumstances of the production – limited by a script he didn’t write and hemmed in by a studio which insisted he storyboard the entire film in advance. It’s hard to work with that level of mistrust and lack of autonomy and the result is apparent in the low energy movie which emerged.
While Tracey Morgan tries as hard as he can to inject some life into proceedings, Willis is like a one-man chemical inhibitor here, sucking the oxygen out of the film with his disinterest and lack of chemistry. There’s a drabness to the movie that extends far beyond the muted colour palette and while comic success usually relies on a funny man and a straight man, it’s just too big an ask for Morgan to overcome the comedy deficit created by the anti-fun presence of Willis.
Short on fun, short on laughs and outdone at every turn by the similarly themed “The Other Guys” released at the same time, “Cop Out” was the wrong cast and the wrong material for Smith, who had initially been attracted to the project by the script’s evocation of ‘Dante and Randall as cops’. It’s hard not to wonder what this could have been had it not been built around the already fading star power of Bruce Willis and instead centred on Morgan’s character. You get the feeling that freed of the depressive presence, Morgan and Smith may have come up with something far filthier and far funnier than this timid buddy comedy.
To end on an optimistic note, “Cop Out” seems to have been a real teachable moment for Smith and it would only be a year before he put those lessons into practice.