Cop Out

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The best joke in “Cop Out” isn’t even in the movie, it’s in the title. The film was originally called “A Couple of Dicks,” using the old slang term for detectives, but Warner Bros. blanched at the thought of putting it on billboards and TV commercials. Party poopers, right? A change had to be made, and someone came up with “Cop Out,” which means nothing in the context of the film but makes for a nice meta-commentary on the behind-the-scenes controversy.

And yeah, that’s the best joke. In fact, it’s almost the only joke. “Cop Out” is a pointless homage to the cheesy buddy-cop action comedies of the 1980s, employing all the familiar tropes but failing to do anything with them. It’s not a parody of those movies, you see. It’s just … one of those movies. But why? You can turn on HBO or TBS any hour of the day and see something just like this, only it will actually be from the ’80s, not just in the style of it.

The dicks referenced in the former title are Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis) and Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan), New York City cops who have been partners for nine years and have the kind of bickering rapport that comes from working together and from being fictional characters. Jimmy has an ex-wife with a rich new husband, and a daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) who’s about to get married in a very expensive fashion. Paul has a current wife (Rashida Jones) who he thinks is cheating on him.

But never mind. None of that matters. What matters, sort of, is that there’s a drug cartel run by a loco Mexican dude named Po Boy (Guillermo Diaz), and a serial burglar named Dave (Seann William Scott), and a highly valuable baseball card that Jimmy wants to sell, and all these things intersect in the convoluted, high-octane manner of a “Lethal Weapon” or what-have-you.

That’s the plot. The plot doesn’t really matter, does it? A movie like this, you’re interested in the witty banter and the awesome action scenes. “Cop Out” doesn’t have those. What it has is Tracy Morgan delivering non sequiturs the way he does on “30 Rock,” only with a great deal more profanity. Some of them are funny. But Bruce Willis, who could do this kind of thing in his sleep, seems to be doing this kind of thing in his sleep, and the screenplay — by brothers Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen (TV’s “Las Vegas”) — gives him nothing to do anyway. Almost all of the film’s scattered laughs are Morgan’s doing.

Notably, this is the first film Kevin Smith (“Clerks,” etc.) has directed that he didn’t write himself. But they got it backwards. Smith is a far better writer than he is a director; if anything, someone else should be directing a screenplay he wrote, not the other way around.

It’s not clear what Smith was going for here. The usual plot devices are assembled: sexy female witness (Ana de la Reguera), blustery police captain (Sean Cullen), rival cops (Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody) who give our heroes a hard time, lots of shootouts. There’s even a musical score by Harold Faltermeyer, of “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack fame. But why recreate an ’80s action comedy if you’re not going to spoof it, or subvert it, or do something — anything — fun with it? What a curious misfire this is — and, as it turns out, an aptly named one.

C- (1 hr., 47 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, some strong violence, some sexual dialogue.)

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