Kevin Smith fans who cringed at the thought of the one-time indie underdog directing ‘Cop Out” a big budget action movie that marks the first time he is working with a script he didn’t write himself were perhaps wrong to immediately assume the worst.

After all, every movie Smith has directed in the past 10 years has added to the droves of disappointed fans, and his last effort, ‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” proved that he seemed incapable of keeping his foul-mouth slacker shtick fresh outside of the Jay and Silent Bob universe that made him famous.

Putting Smith on a movie exclusively for his directing skills is like getting Hendrix to do a capella, but it’s clear that ever since saying goodbye to the View Askew characters (twice), Smith has been having trouble maintaining his own character. Turning to others in this case screenwriters Mark and Robb Cullen for fresh ideas perhaps wasn’t such a bad decision.

But if ‘Cop Out” is actually Smith’s idea of broadening his repertoire, he might as well start thinking about stretching ‘Clerks” out to a trilogy. The film is an homage to the cheesy buddy cop flicks of the 70s and 80s a genre of films that, in case Smith or anyone else forgot, were usually structured around a few threads of whimsy, and a lot of forgettable nonsense.

‘Cop Out” stays true to that standard, in the sense that the partnership at the film’s center is enjoyable enough and everything else is incredibly lame.
The friendship here is between NYPD officers Jimmy Monroe and Paul Hodges, played by Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan.

It’s noble how much of an effort both actors make to play against type Willis’ cop is a hard-ass old guy with daughter problems, Morgan’s is a loud and obnoxious black guy who screws up every task he’s assigned.

Of course they do police work in all the wrong ways letting informants get killed, stealing bikes so they can pursue shoot-outs in broad daylight and get suspended from the force.

Most of the plot revolves around Jimmy’s quest to find a stolen baseball card he intended to pawn so he can pay for his daughter’s wedding, a quirky idea that might actually make you think the whole movie won’t be completely by-the-book. But the two cops soon get caught up in a local drug ring operated by a family of Mexicans so stereotypical and uninteresting it’s as if Carlos Mencia had been put through an assembly line.

Willis and Morgan are, at least, fun. They lack the back-and-forth tension that would have elevated their relationship to hilarity, and even some of their best banter doesn’t match the level of fine-tuned wit or singularity that Smith flaunted in his own dialogue.

But they seem like the kind of guys you’d love to spend a day with, which is the point. Like ‘Sherlock Holmes,” ‘Cop Out” is an utterly vapid action movie that’s almost salvaged by the bickering friendship at its core.

Sean William Scott has a hilarious supporting role as Dave, a roof-leaping burglar with a penchant for maniacal laughter and knock-knock jokes that reach the level of psychological torment.

He often steals the show when sharing the screen with Willis and Morgan, but when left on their own, the two stars always riff off each other with glee.

If Smith had the good graces to let this chemistry shine for all of ‘Cop Out,” it might have actually worked. After all, this is the guy who once said that if he were to write an action scene, it would consist of a couple guys standing around and talking about the action scene.

‘Cop Out” completely betrays that spirit, as if Smith has lost touch with his inner film geek. It dutifully attends to a number of dull conventions that dilute whatever simple pleasures the film offers.

The whole plot about the Mexican drug dealers is given an inordinate amount of attention and seriousness, as if Smith believes he is actually crafting something like an interesting crime story.

Paul is given a sub-plot about his suspicion that his wife is cheating, because it simply wouldn’t be fair to only let one cop have all the conflicts. Adam Brody and Kevin Pollack play another NYPD duo who continuously compete with our heroes and yet never seem like a threator even a matter of interest.

Of course, these are all conventions of the genre according to the movies Smith is working off of, no cop duo is complete without bad guys, rivalries and average guy turmoil that can and will be happily resolved before the credits roll. The problem is that this film doesn’t attend to these details with any sense of nostalgia, irony or, indeed, personality. With ‘Cop Out,” Smith gives further legitimacy to the concerns he’s been raising with every film he’s made since ‘Jersey Girl:” His inability to tell a bad joke or an eye-rolling convention when he directs one, his inability to keep a movie going without awkward hit-or-miss pacing and his inability to deliver anything surprising in the final act.

He can still get some fun out of his movies, even if its stupid fun. But you’d think he’d have enough comedic common sense to make ‘Cop Out” a lot funnier, or at least be more attuned to its obvious failings. Is this really the best he can do?

Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.

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