It would be unfair to cite “Let’s Be Cops” for being completely unfunny, but the movie at least deserves a warning for carrying so little actual humor over the course of its running time. A mild chuckle every five minutes or so doesn’t justify the predictable slog of this mistaken-identity farce.
If nothing else, it’s an object example of the importance of writing. The cast is loaded with people who have been hilarious elsewhere — Damon Wayans, Jr. (of the brilliant, gone-too-soon “Happy Endings”), Jake Johnson (“Drinking Buddies”), Rob Riggle (“NTSF:SD:SUV::”), and Keegan-Michael Key (“Key & Peele”), to name just a few — but the script by Nicholas Thomas and director Luke Greenfield (“Something Borrowed”) mires the performers in stale situations, flat characters, and setups that almost never pay off in a satisfying way.
The premise is simple but full of unfulfilled potential: Would-be video game designer Justin (Wayans) and layabout ex-jock Ryan (Johnson) have made it to 30 without becoming successful in Los Angeles. Just when they’re about to go home to Ohio, they attend an alumni costume party wearing the police uniforms that were part of Justin’s unsuccessful presentation for a first-person shooter game.
(Sidenote: The movie pulls the cobweb-covered “We thought it was a costume party!” gag in the first five minutes, never a promising indication of what’s to come.)
Walking home, the two discover that the uniforms empower them, making them respected, feared, and even adored by passers-by. Ryan gets so into his new fake identity that he starts watching YouTube clips about police terminology and methodology, and he even buys an old squad car off eBay. Justin is reluctant at first, until he realizes that his guise as “Officer Chang” attracts the attention of pretty waitress Josie (Nina Dobrev, “The Vampire Diaries”), who has aspirations of becoming a creature-effects makeup artist.
(Second sidenote: Because of the incongruous ID badge on his uniform, Wayans’ cop persona would ostensibly be “Justin Chang,” who happens to be a well-known film critic. Coincidence?)
Because Los Angeles apparently has only eight or so people in it, Ryan and Justin take advantage of their faux-police personae to mess with some Russian thugs who damaged Ryan’s car, only to discover that the mobsters’ ringleader Mossi (James D’Arcy, “Cloud Atlas”) is a serious psycho who has been both harassing Josie’s bosses and stalking the waitress himself.
Their buddy-cop shtick is enough to temporarily fool real policeman Segars (Riggle), but when the duo stumble upon a major conspiracy involving the Russians, they’ll need help from the actual LAPD to survive.
So…funny on paper, right? And to be fair, “Let’s Be Cops” inspires the occasional laugh out of Ryan’s gung-ho-ness or Justin’s hesitancy. (Wayans reworks some of the hetero-fey body language that served him so well on “Happy Endings.”)
It doesn’t help that you can guess what’s going to happen, and which lessons are going to be learned. Meanwhile, the script works up a froth to keep the story afloat. Long after Ryan and Justin’s ruse should have been exposed, the film contorts itself to keep it going, which would be forgivable if keeping doing so meant more laughs.
Cinematographer Daryn Okada (“Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”) may be commenting on old-school TV police dramas with the flat, bright look of the film, but that doesn’t make it any easier on the eyes. And anyone who’s lived in Atlanta or Los Angeles will be able to distinguish which exteriors are which, even though the entire film is supposedly set in the greater Hollywood area.
With a combination of jokes that don’t land and a constant flurry of exposition and plotting to keep these flimsy plates spinning, “Let’s Be Cops” more often than not feels more like a court-ordered defensive-driving class than a rousing high-speed chase.