First, let’s start off with the biggest, most unavoidable elephant in the room. Through no fault of 20th Century Fox or the filmmakers, the release of a lighthearted Hard-R screwball comedy about people pretending to be cops and abusing their sense of authority almost on the exact day that the events in Ferguson, Missouri went down might be in the poorest taste possible. No one involved with the production could have foreseen that happening for Luke Greenfield’s Let’s Be Cops, and considering how popular word of mouth was in early screenings and how the date was picked way far in advance of such a tragic occasion, that’s really not anyone’s fault. It has also apparently already made a decent chunk of change since opening yesterday, which means most audiences are probably apathetic about this sort of thing, anyway.
Then there’s the other unavoidable elephant in the room. It’s a low budget comedy getting dumped to theatres on a Wednesday, and despite several early public screenings, press was strictly prohibited from attending any of them. That raises some pretty big warning signs. Again, that decided upon prohibition and idea to keep the movie quiet from people who might tear it apart once again happened before anything happened in Ferguson.
It actually didn’t need to be hidden. For what it is, Let’s Be Cops is a decent enough time waster that gets some choice laughs out of some perfectly paired leads and a sense of gravity that doesn’t run aground of the film’s ludicrous premise. At least had they shown it to critics, the worst they could have said is that they hated it with such a fervor that people would have seen it anyway out of spite and thanks to deadlines, no one would have mentioned Ferguson in the same paragraph as the film since reviews would have already been written and filed in time for Wednesday. Those are the breaks, I guess.
But, yes, about the movie: Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.) are a pair of thirty year old BFFs who came to LA with hopes of fame and fortune but found neither. Ryan’s a washed up college football quarterback doing odd jobs, generally being aimless, and half-assedly trying to get into acting. Justin’s a video game designer that’s looked down upon by his colleagues for even suggesting that an End of Watch-styled video game where you play a cop would sound like a fun idea. Mistaking a college reunion masquerade ball for a costume party, the friends show up dressed as cops and continue to play the charade through the night once they hit the streets and see how women love a man in uniform and how people will essentially do whatever a cop tells them to do. Ryan, who finally finds a sense of purpose, goes positively method and continues pretending to be a cop, while Justin goes along for the ride because the new girl of his dreams (Nina Dobrev) doesn’t know him as anything else. A bit of revenge against someone who bullied them, however, runs them afoul of a major crime syndicate and puts them both in a lot of danger.
I suppose the worst thing about this effort from Greenfield (The Girl Next Door, Something Borrowed) would be that it’s very rarely laugh out loud funny. I found myself smiling at a lot of the jokes and situations, admiring the cleverness, but never really guffawing or rising to more than a mild chuckle. This might be to play to Johnson and Wayans’ strengths as gifted deadpan comics, but a film where a pair of guys go to outlandish lengths to impress people should also have some degree of outlandish humour to it instead of obvious jokes about their incompetence and how they only know about being cops from watching movies, TV shows, and YouTube videos. Greenfield seems oddly more preoccupied with making sure his film looks great (which it does) than in making anything original out of the comedic beats. Ryan plays football with small children so he can feel like a big man. Justin is both the target of and unknowing purveyor of racist comments. There are latent homosexual underpinnings. There are montages of the guys using their ill gotten power to get free stuff. It’s nothing you wouldn’t expect or be able to figure out seconds in.
The success of everything lies on the shoulders of Johnson and Wayans, both of whom carry the load of such stilted material quite nicely. They can trade barbs with the best of them, and neither tries to make their selfish characters seem likable or worthy of redemption (except Wayans, who as the script is written has to eventually be awkwardly forgiven for being a liar, but that’s not his fault, it’s the script’s). Johnson has of late mastered the ability to blend being a smart ass with an uncanny talent for physical humour that often results in him trying to roll around and look tough while almost nearly breaking his neck several times in the process. Wayans here feels tonally consistent with something his dad would have been doing around the time that Mo Money came out in the 90s. He’s playing a flawed everyman learning to gain the confidence to eventually better himself. Together they make for a likable enough duo to watch even when the things they’re saying and doing aren’t always so hilarious.
About an hour in, the film takes a turn for the serious as the guys actually get to see how hard being a real cop can be. In this section, Greenfield and co-writer Nicholas Thomas concoct a tired “damsel in distress” story involving Justin’s new girlfriend, and while Dobrev does what she can with the material, she can’t exactly make something that tired interesting. The real energy in this section comes from a strong villain and a normally comedic actor who gets to play the only truly sympathetic guy in the film.
An almost completely unrecognizable and bald headed James D’Arcy does some appropriately menacing work as the crime boss baddie. He gets to play the perfectly straight role in a rather silly movie, so his attempts at injecting some drama into the material are quite welcome. Also worth noting is a great performance from Rob Riggle as a beat cop who believes Justin and Ryan are the real deal. He’s supposed to play a bumbling rube at first, but once the film forces him to clean up the mess for the real idiots of the film, he gets to show a remarkable amount of sympathetic range and emotional hurt considering that he isn’t in too much of the film. The only real disappointment in the cast, however, comes from a recognizable actor slumming it in a bit part as the brains of the crime family. It’s nice to see this person at first until you realize that his part is useless and it could be cut entirely from the film with nothing to be missed.
By the end, the heroes learn a lesson (kinda), the day is saved (mostly), and everything has happened like you thought it would have. It’s hardly the kind of film that normally needs to get hidden from critics. I had actually seen two far worse films in the morning on the same day I watched this in the afternoon. Maybe that’s where the charity came from on this one. Maybe it was the air condition. Maybe it’s that I generally like Johnson, Wayans, and Riggle as performers. Whatever it is, Let’s Be Cops is as declarative and free of frills as a comedy as its blunt title suggests.