Silver Screen: Let’s Be Cops ***1/2
On second thought, now might not be the best time to pretend to be a police officer.
There was a brief time in America when being a cop was cool. That time was right after September 11, when police officers were viewed as slightly less heroic firefighters who only occasionally shot unarmed black men. In the intervening decade-plus, however, the police have done less running into burning buildings to save people and shifted their focus back toward shooting unarmed black men— an unwise move, I would argue, but then maybe that’s why I didn’t make it all the way through the academy.
I don’t mean to paint with a broad brush. Not all police officers shoot unarmed black men. Sometimes they strangle homeless people or write speeding tickets to taxpayers driving to work at six miles over the limit. It varies.
The point being, summer 2014 is a slightly awkward time for the release of a buddy comedy called Let’s Be Cops. Lucky for the filmmakers the movie is so light and frivolous that it never threatens to bump up against any serious social issues— which, in a way, is part of the problem.
The plot spins around a solid comedy premise. College buddies Ryan and Justin (New Girl costars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr.) have struggled since graduation. Their failures are highlighted when they attend an alumni costume party dressed as police officers only to discover it’s actually a swanky masquerade ball, and their noses are rubbed in their former friends’ successes. On the way back home, though, Ryan notices that the realistic police uniforms they’re wearing earn them a certain amount of respect, so they decide to take the gag a step further.
At first dressing up as policemen is a sly way to meet women, in particular a sexy waitress (Nina Dobrev) for whom Justin pines. But bored former college quarterback Ryan finds thrills in the excitement of police work— or at least pretend police work— and buys a decommissioned squad car and CB radio so he and Justin can start answering calls. When they take their petty heroics too far they run afoul of— what else?— generic movie gangsters. Soon they find themselves both targets of the underworld and the only team who can crack the case to reveal a vast criminal conspiracy.
Let’s Be Cops works best as a series of related sketches about two pretend policemen. Whenever actual plot development enters the fray, the comic momentum is Tazed into submission. Mostly, though, director and cowriter Luke Greenfield lets his stars run amok on the streets of Los Angeles to great effect.
Johnson and Wayans Jr. are a winning team. The latter has all the charm of his famous father, minus the jagged edges, which makes him perfect for a bright studio comedy. He’s got terrific chemistry with the very funny Johnson, who lends the movie its emotional core. Ryan is a bit of a loser but mostly just lacks direction. Once he decides to pretend to have a real job, he throws himself into the work, watching Youtube videos on how to interview and subdue perpetrators, doing such a good job of it that, in one of the movie’s better running gags, he’s continually giving himself promotions. Ryan’s budding dedication to actually protecting and serving the citizenry is what prevents the characters from seeming like manipulative jerks and sets them apart from, well, a lot of real cops.
This being a determinedly mainstream effort, the boys in blue have their own idealized representative in Rob Riggle, playing a fair-minded and genuinely badass beat cop who helps our team when the case spirals out of control. Riggle is always a welcome presence, although he’s upstaged by fellow guest star Keegan-Michael Key, who steals all his scenes as the manic but strangely self-aware informant Pupa.
Let’s Be Cops is a solid summertime comedy, perhaps not quite as funny as the season’s earlier Twenty-two Jump Street, but it’s less self-referential and more winningly earnest. Gentle as it is, though, the film toys with the notion that police officers can be unaccountable, street-level tyrants who abuse their power according to their whims. Satire is supposed to use laughter to expose deeper truths, yet sometimes even effective comedy can have the opposite result and, through repetition, reduce real horror to a punchline. (For further example, see pretty much every prison-rape gag ever made.) The joke’s on us if we spend so much time laughing at abhorrent behavior that we become inured to it and accept it as inevitable.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.