Distilled to its manly essence, the cop-buddy movie — a la “Cop Out,” which opens Friday — is about opposites not attracting: Two characters, almost always male, approach each other warily from different racial, ethnic, political, temperamental, psychological and criminal backgrounds. They don’t get along. They can’t get along. And then, of course, they fall in love.
No? Didn’t Danny Glover and Mel Gibson have mancrushes in “Lethal Weapon”? Didn’t Dan Aykroyd secretly pine for Tom Hanks in “Dragnet”? Didn’t Tango love Cash? Same-sex marriage may not do well at the ballot box, but it’s dynamite at the box office.
The latest suspect in the police lineup, “Cop Out,” is a big movie. Everything about it is Big. Or used to be: Just last week, its director, the countercultural Kevin Smith (“Clerks,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) was booted off a Southwest Airlines flight for being generously proportioned. His new movie stars Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, the latter best known for “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock”; the former for having been so big that at one time he could do a cop-buddy movie without a buddy (the “Die Hard” franchise).
That was, of course, some time ago. For the macho Hollywood career on the ropes — or, apparently, the aging maverick who wants to go mainstream — there exists the default mechanism of the buddy-action flick.
They’ve all done ‘em: Stallone, van Damme, Schwarzenegger (“The Last Action Hero”), Schwarzenegger (“Red Heat”) Schwarzenegger (“Kindergarten Cop,” with Pamela Reed playing the rare female partner). Eddie Murphy has done multiple films in more than one cop-buddy franchise (“Beverly Hills Cop” and “48 Hrs.”). Willis is actually coming back for seconds, having done “The Last Boy Scout,” which wasn’t actually about cops, but had all the right stuff.
But so do many Hollywood pictures — to the point that the cop-buddy formula might be considered representative only of what makes mainstream movies work at all: Conflict. If someone wanted to remake, say “The African Queen,” couldn’t Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bicker their way down the Ulanga just as well as Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart? Couldn’t Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker (“Rush Hour”) remake a Tracy-Hepburn comedy, say “Pat and Mike”?
Where the cop-buddy movie does push things forward is in matters of race. Few genres have been so regularly, insistently diverse about pairing black and white — Glover-Gibson; Murphy-Nolte (“48 Hrs.”), Willis-Damon Wayans (“The Last Boy Scout”); Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones (“Men in Black” I and II); Jamie Foxx-Colin Farrell (“Miami Vice”); Wesley Snipes-Woody Harrelson (“Money Train”); Smith-Kevin Kline (“Wild Wild West”) and even Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal (“Running Scared”). White-on-white has been done, of course, from the seminal 1974 “Freebie and the Bean” (with James Caan and Alan Arkin) through the 2007 British comedy “Hot Fuzz” (with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost).
But the examples of Caucasian cop comedies — Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett in “Hollywood Homicide,” Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in “Starsky and Hutch” — sort of, uh, pale in comparison, to either the black-on-black pairings (“Bad Boys” I and II) or, given the resilience of the “Rush Hour” machine, the Chinese/African-American combo platter.
Mixed-race cop teams are a safe way of pursuing diversity (and a larger audience) because race is seldom the core issue of dispute between the principals. Their friction is usually more about lifestyle — Glover’s grounded family man vs. Gibson’s suicidal lunatic; Murphy’s street-wise Axel Foley vs. Judge Reinhold and John Ashton’s by-the-books detectives (“Beverly Hills Cops”); Burt Reynolds’ child-hating lawman vs. the 8-year-old Norman D. Golden II (“Cop and a Half”).
Sometimes the partners seem like different species. Sometimes they are (Hanks and the dog in “Turner & Hooch”).
Usually, though, it’s all about worldview, not genomes.
For all the vulgarity, violence and imminent disaster of the cop-buddy movie, it’s not danger that’s being peddled.
Quite the contrary: Formulas get repeated because they work, and anyone who’s chomping at the bit to see “Cop Out” will be expecting — and wanting — the tried and true.
Besides, the cop-buddy movie is such an entrenched part of our moviegoing culture that any tampering with its tropes and conventions would probably be considered a Class A movie felony.
The sentence: back-to-back showings of “National Security” (Martin Lawrence and Steve Zahn), “Double Team” (van Damme and erstwhile NBA star Dennis Rodman) and “Theodore Rex” (Whoopi Goldberg and a talking dinosaur).