20th Century Fox
R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, violence and drug use.
Running time: 109 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
Being a buddy-cop movie that knows it’s a buddy-cop movie simply is not enough. “21 Jump Street” and the surprisingly superior sequel “22 Jump Street” were self-aware in a snappy, clever way. They had a lively, giddy energy about them. They subverted a genre while simultaneously being true to it — a tricky balancing act to pull off well.
“Let’s Be Cops” is a high-concept comedy predicated on a single, simple joke: What would happen if a couple of regular guys pretended to be police officers? The movie’s tag line tells you everything you need to know: “Fake Cops. Real Trouble.” This notion might have worked perfectly well in sketch form, but stretched out to feature length — in a film that’s overlong at nearly two hours — it grows thin, repetitive and wearying.
It’s too bad, too, because Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. actually seem to have an easy chemistry with each other. The co-stars of TV’s “New Girl” team up here as longtime friends from Ohio who find themselves flailing in Los Angeles as they hit 30. Johnson’s Ryan is a former college quarterback and would-be actor whose best-known credit is a commercial for herpes medication. Wayans’ Justin works at a video game company where his boss rudely rejects his police-themed idea in favor of a hackneyed concept involving zombies.
Through a convoluted series of mishaps and misunderstandings that we won’t trouble you with here, Justin and Ryan end up wearing police uniforms and walking the streets of L.A. Lo and behold, they find themselves the objects of respect and even desire. Suddenly drunk with their own sense of power (and high, too, when they confiscate a kid’s joint), the fellas set off to find out just how far they can go in their disguises. Oddly, this section reminded me of the thrilling sense of discovery Tobey Maguire enjoys in the first “Spider-Man” movie as he tests his abilities and pushes his boundaries post-spider bite. But that sense of excitement quickly dissipates.
From here, director Luke Greenfield (the underappreciated “The Girl Next Door,” the horrendous “Something Borrowed”), working from a script he co-wrote with Nicholas Thomas, operates in an extended mode of straining. The tension comes from one source: Ryan’s desire to continue the ruse vs. Justin’s fear of committing a federal offense. Admittedly, the few scattered laughs that exist here come from Ryan’s obsessive drive to immerse himself in law enforcement, even going so far as to buy a squad car off eBay. But again, there’s only so far you can take this joke once you’ve established it.
The actual danger in which they find themselves — involving generic Russian baddies, smuggled weapons and a hidden tunnel — feels like an afterthought. There’s a lot of noise, but the notion that they’re deeply invested in solving a crime (with the help of Rob Riggle as an actual officer) provides little in the way of stakes or suspense. More often, Greenfield resorts to cheap and borderline offensive slapstick: a commercial burglary in which a heavyset, naked dude’s balls end up on Wayans’ face, or a domestic dispute in which a trio of black sorority sisters with stereotypically ghetto names bitch-slap each other. Natasha Leggero goes to waste as a druggy, slutty weirdo whose apartment Justin and Ryan use for a stakeout. (Keegan-Michael Key does have an amusing cameo, though, as the grill-wearing, thug informant who becomes the pals’ unlikely ally.)
Then again, all the women in “Let’s Be Cops” are rendered as oversexed, idiotic or both. The one supposed good girl in the film, a waitress Justin’s had a crush on who finally responds to him when she thinks he’s a police officer, is likable enough as played by Nina Dobrev. But then the pretty, leggy actress is relegated to a wardrobe of ass-hugging denim shorts and tight T-shirts, and she talks wistfully of her fondness for bad boys who mistreat her. She’s passive and in need of rescuing — by a real cop, or even a fake one. How’s that for a hackneyed concept?