So far, so middling — until Smith complicates matters by following that shot with an opening sequence that sends Cop Out swerving into smarter territory: Determined to prove his bad-cop "acting" chops to a skeptical Jimmy (Bruce Willis), Paul (Tracy Morgan) interrogates a perp by subjecting him to an unrelenting marathon of movie character impersonations. Beginning with Al Pacino in Heat and moving, logically, through In the Heat of the Night and Training Day, Paul's "homage" (which he pronounces "homm-idge") eventually jumps off the rails. Jimmy, on the other side of the interrogation-room glass, can only gape at his partner's increasingly non sequitur charade: "Dirty Dancing? Star Wars? Everything on cable?!?"
And so Cop Out announces itself as both loving "homage" to "everything on cable" — particularly '80s action comedies, referenced most directly by Harold Faltermeyer's cheap synth score and an honest-to-goodness plot song (called "Soul Brothers" and sung by Patti LaBelle) — and a sly subversion of genre. It's a movie that shamelessly traffics in the clichés of other cop movies, while also engaging both characters and audience in the spectator sport of catching references to those very movies. Cop Out only works as well as it does — and it works exponentially better than it should — because the movie-trivia game is played smirk-free, with palpable joy from everyone involved.
Jimmy, a swinging-dick career NYPD cop threatened by his ex-wife's young, rich new husband (Jason Lee), tries to sell a priceless, long-treasured baseball card so he can pick up the tab for his daughter's wedding. That plan immediately goes horribly awry, thanks to interventions from Seann William Scott as a parkour-practicing thief, and the scene-swiping Guillermo Diaz as a textbook Mexican movie gangster with an atypical baseball obsession (and an in-home batting cage/torture chamber to match). Jimmy and Paul have no choice but to Break All the Rules.
The plot is almost an afterthought, an obvious MacGuffin intended to steamroll a path for the charisma and chemistry of the two leads. Morgan has been brutally undervalued for his work on the otherwise heavily awarded NBC series 30 Rock, possibly because it's assumed that the incorrigible comedian he plays is just a riff on himself. In Cop Out, unchained from the temporal constraints and standards and practices of network TV and, according to the press notes, given free rein to improvise, Morgan of course works broad and blue, but he really surprises with his timing and self-control. There are comic setpieces in Cop Out that play out at a snail's pace, turning awkward and uncomfortable for long stretches in order to build toward a big funny, and Morgan not only hangs on, but steers. Willis's main order of business is to stay cool and look good — to provide a solid backboard for Morgan's delirious lunacy — and this he does well.
Like most of Smith's movies, from Clerks to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back to Zach and Miri Make a Porno, Cop Out tracks a small arc of maturation for dudes who filter their own lives through popular culture. There was a sincere love letter to the transformative power of filmmaking baked into Porno, but its impact was diluted by what felt like strained overtures to the Apatow audience. On the contrary, Cop Out works as a love letter to film fandom, and, amid the ample violence and genitalia jokes, its strength is its sincerity. Working with a full-on studio budget for the first time in his decade-and-a-half career, Smith is still making movies about guys just like him. It may be masturbatory, but it's also some kind of creative integrity.