Let's start with what Let's Be Cops is not. It is not a high-minded comedy that seeks to upend the buddy-cop sub-genre by exploring racial dynamics on police forces and in communities nationwide. Neither is it a commentary on the horrific events playing out in Ferguson, MO (which happened four days prior to the film's release). The greatest crime co-writer/director Luke Greenfield's action farce commits is not being particularly funny, exciting, or original. That it has landed, flaming, on our collective doorstep at this moment in history is both unfortunate and largely irrelevant.
Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. play two L.A. losers named Ryan and Justin. They moved to Hollywood eight years ago to pursue their dreams (football/acting for Ryan; video game design for Justin), but have barely moved the needle, career-wise. On receiving an invitation to a costume party hosted by their college alumni association, they show up wearing cop outfits from Justin's failed first-person-shooter pitch. Cue the slide whistles, kids, 'cause it turns out the invitation was for a masquerade party! Whoops! Check that banana peel!
Humiliated and directionless, the guys walk home--only to discover people giving them Moses-like space. They randomly tell pedestrians to stop, and watch as citizens freeze in place. Justin and Ryan have discovered the non-mutant superpower of uniformed authority, and find it to be pretty awesome. During the next several days, the almost willfully unemployed Ryan ratchets up his involvement in this fake persona by purchasing a cop car on eBay and watching all the police-procedure YouTube videos he can find. Justin, meanwhile, reluctantly tags along to avoid thinking about the 9-5 theft of ideas at his day job.
Of course, they run afoul of local Russian mobsters, led a scar-faced, psychotic animal named Mossi (James D'arcy). I found him to be the most unique part of his crew, but that's only 'cause I spent the entire film wondering if he was, in fact, Rodrigo Santoro or the result of a genetic experiment between Santoro and Ethan Hawke. I still can't believe my eyes.
There's also a girl involved, a waitress named Josie (Nina Dobrev). In a refreshing twist, she doesn't get kidnapped by the mobsters (thus allowing would-be boyfriend Justin to swoop in with guns-blazing courage at the end). That scenario would have given the actress something more to do than serve as slinky-skirted eye candy, though. Dobrev has anchored a highly successful TV series for several years, but you'd never know it based on this disposable role.
All the familiar beats are here. The guys fall into a weapons-smuggling ring and get way over their heads. They have a falling out over which one has made the least of their sad lives. The villains kidnap one of them, forcing the other to team up with real...
Look, audiences don't come to these movies for dynamic plots. I mean, they could, but Let's Be Cops has nothing more on its mind than raunch and circumstance. These are vignettes strung together by comedy and cop-movie tropes, which have been either parodied to death or executed with genre-defining grace. On one end of the Classics spectrum we have Lethal Weapon; on the other, Hot Fuzz. 21 Jump Street is somewhere in the middle, I guess. Let's Be Cops exists on another scale entirely, clustered at the far end that no one likes to talk about (though I hear it has cozied up with 22 Jump Street for warmth).
On whatever passes for a bright side here, Greenfield and co-writer Nicholas Thomas make up for their lack of creativity with a fantastic and utterly squandered cast. Johnson has done some great work in recent years, playing (relatively) understated and acerbic in movies like Drinking Buddies and on TV's The New Girl. This movie feels like it's either several steps back, or the first thing he'd ever filmed, finally released. Though Ryan is a nigh unrepentant jerk, Johnson's infusion of clueless, devilish glee makes his character compelling to watch. Wayans has a bigger mountain to scale, partially because he appears to ape his father half the time, and partially due to playing the straight man in a cast of cartoon characters. I'll call this one a wash, and hope that he gets more of a chance to prove himself in the future.
The movie also makes great use of Rob Riggle, who explores more serious territory here, to great effect--in addition to expanding his macho-goofball repertoire.
Sadly, I don't know that Luke Greenfield will get a Strike Three. After flops like The Animal (his debut, which doesn't really count), The Girl Next Door, and Something Borrowed, Let's Be Cops may be his feature-film swan song.* We catch glimpses of promise during the spotty twenty-minute climax, in which the movie forgets to be a dumb comedy and wanders into legit action movie territory. Had Greenfield either pushed (or been allowed to push) for greater substance or more deft non-substance throughout, maybe the end result would have been gratifying instead of grating.
Note: Another underused performer here is Keegan-Michael Key, who shows up as a Dominican smuggler. Seeing him reminded me of the upcoming Police Academy reboot (which he's slated to produce with Key & Peele co-creator Jordan Peele). How great would it be if Jake Johnson's character stepped between films, co-starring in Police Academy as the power-obsessed Officer Tackleberry? If there is justice in the cinematic cosmos, Let's Be Cops may someday prove to have served a purpose.
*That's a shame. I loved The Girl Next Door. Yes, it lifted heavily from Risky Business, but the film was contemporary, heartfelt, weird, and, most importantly, very funny.