If making comedies was a 100-metre dash, Let’s Be Cops would be the gold medalist. The title alone tells you everything you need to know about both the premise – wherein a pair of civilian losers don a badge and gun for the fun of it – and the amount of effort put into making the actual film. It’s easy to imagine stars Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson, who have great chemistry on the sitcom New Girl, deciding to do a movie together, regardless of if they have a director, script, or even an idea for a feature. The two just goofing around in silly costumes for an hour and change ought to be enough, right?
Let’s Be Cops also sets a land speed record for time between opening shot and the “what happened to us, man?” speech (by my estimate: 15 seconds) needed to kick off a story of uncertain identity. The theme hangs all too naturally around the neck of Let’s Be Cops, as this is a movie with absolutely no idea of what it wants to be.
Wayans stars as Justin, the uptight, career-frustrated one in an L.A.-based bromance that’s other half is Ryan (Johnson), a coulda-gone-pro former athlete living carefree off of commercial residuals. The id to Justin’s ego, Ryan spends most of his days playing football with school kids, while his best friend and roommate toils to bring his dream video game, L.A. Patrolman, to life at an emasculating day job. Inspired by Justin’s game to suit up in police uniform for a costume party/college reunion (just go with it), a night of facing down the failures that have filled their twenties finds an unexpected silver lining: whether due to fear or adoration, it turns out everyone respects a man in cop blues.
For about five minutes, the gag works, as it’s fun to watch Ryan and Justin graduate from rookies ordering people around just to mess with them, to bad lieutenants sharing joints with the delinquents they ought to be busting. Giddy abuse of made-up authority is a premise ripe with potential, regardless of the ham-fisted and rushed route Let’s Be Cops takes to establish it. One might despair to see absolute power corrupt people of actual integrity and principle, but seeing these two chuckleheads get high on the small, but noticeable authority a uniform and fake guns gives them is a hoot.
Then someone has to make a full movie out of that premise, at which point Let’s Be Cops starts struggling to maintain multiple identities that it can never keep straight. Taking the game of make-believe too far, Ryan uses his uniform to get a little revenge on some local thugs that had menaced the guys previously, simultaneously putting them in the crosshairs of a gang of non-descript Eastern Europeans, and in the good graces of their local bar’s waitress, Josie (Nina Dobrev). “I knew we’d see these guys again,” Ryan says when rolling up on the mobsters for a little payback, a kind of throwaway line meant to remind the viewer of their previous meeting, but one that also adds to your increasing awareness of how sloppily Let’s Be Cops is put together.
Johnson and Wayans clearly have great affection for one another as performers, but if one tenth of their energy spent palling around was applied to punching up director Luke Greenfield’s feeble script, maybe Let’s Be Cops might have had a few more actual jokes in it. You will quickly lose track if attempting to count how many scenes crescendo in a slap fight, nut shot, or just general bickering. In lieu of setups and payoffs, Let’s Be Cops offers a lot -and I mean a lot– of people shouting at each other, which always seems to lead to Ryan, or someone else calling Justin “a bitch” for suggesting something sensible.
A shrug-inducing laziness pervades Let’s Be Cops from the first shot (“How do we make the opening credits funny?” “Use a ‘90s pop song that millennials will like ironically?”), through to the increasingly complicated police investigation that Ryan and Justin bumble their way into (“How do we make this stakeout funny?” “Set it in an apartment owned by a woman who’s super horny?”). In taking Justin and Ryan’s ruse beyond the simplicity of a beat walk, Greenfield neglected to consider how much time an actual cop movie has to spend establishing the details and players in a case. As a result, the back half of the film labors to set up plot points instead of punchlines. Ryan reflexively dumps exposition while spying on bad guys, explaining his narration as “what you do in the movies.” It’s lines like those that make Greenfield’s flop-sweat palpable, wherein an acknowledgement of the absence of any jokes is meant to be a joke in and of itself.
As Ryan gets deeper and deeper into his made-up persona, so does the film. The entire third act is almost completely devoid of attempts at humor, with life-threatening shootouts exposing just how tonally jarring the film has become (the guys at one point kidnap a crook and instantly agree that they should torture him for information), and also how cheaply made it is. To accuse Greenfield’s direction of being unworthy of a sitcom would be an insult to the format, as most sitcoms remember where their characters are positioned from one shot to the next. Wrap that up in an over-reliance on ironic racism for laughs, cutout L.A. stereotypes for characters, and Justin’s cliché romance under false pretences with Josie (which the film, mercifully, acknowledges as problematic), and you’ve got a movie that goes from boring, to actively unlikeable over the course of 100 minutes.
Most of this could be forgiven if Let’s Be Cops were actually funny, but it’s too confused or half-assed to figure out an identity and stick with it. The film could have committed to following Ryan’s delusions to a darker end, and you might get something like Observe and Report, a bitterly hilarious pill that knew what it was, warts and all. Or it could have pursued the more harmless playfulness of undercover hijinks that 21 Jump Street mined so well. Let’s Be Cops didn’t have to try to be either of those films, but it at least had to try being one of its own, instead of a trash heap of two or three different ones. Put another way: when your movie has Keegan-Michael Key throwing everything he’s got into an outrageous character, and even he can’t save you, you know you’re pooched.
Let’s Be Cops is a grinding, desperate mess of a comedy, one where every occasional chuckle it forces out of you comes with the guilt of feeling like you’re just encouraging a loud, obnoxious party guest that’s quickly overstayed their welcome.
"Let's not, and say we didn't," is the only response that one should have if asked to go see Let's Be Cops.