When you put a pair of losers in uniforms, at the end of the day they're still losers. Best friends and roommates Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Ryan (Jake Johnson) learn that the hard way but not without finding some joy in the fantasy that you can become the success you had always hoped to by just slipping on some aviators and buying a police car off eBay. Easy is the theme and reality of Let's Be Cops. As the pair slides into fake lives and real danger, the movie glides on the formula of buddy cop films, putting on those tropes just like Justin and Ryan putting on cop gear. As a film, Let's Be Cops glides in the same way its characters do. Though it charms, it's difficult to ignore how many times we've seen this story played out before.
At 30, the friends are Midwesterners struggling to find success in Los Angeles. Ryan is the Deadbeat Loser, still living off the money he made from a herpes commercial two years ago and playing football with preteens to relieve the pain of never making it to the NFL. Justin is the Weak Loser, an assistant at a video game company, who is infantilized by his douchebag boss and unable to sell his video game idea, aptly titled Patrolman. In keeping with the trend of awful life choices, they mistake a college reunion masquerade for a midsummer costume party and come dressed in the Patrolman costumes Justin happens to have lying around their apartment. Once they walk down the street with their badges shining and (unloaded) guns holstered, this dejected pair feels like superheroes, suddenly able to control pedestrians with a flick of the hand — and, better still, get revenge on the mobsters who had hit their hoopty the night before. (That squad is led by James D'Arcy, looking like rapper Riff Raff without the cornrows and gold teeth.)
Like the video games Justin designs and the college football stardom Ryan refuses to abandon, the fantasy becomes a shield from the realities of their inadequacies. They bring to life everything they've learned from cop movies, where the heroes yell cool shit like “Yippee-ki-yay” and always get the girl. After 22 Jump Street ripped to shreds the formula of a buddy cop film, it's difficult to not side-eye the perfect mold Let's Be Cops casts itself in. Per usual, an odd couple struggles to mesh together as a team, finds its bearings, encounters dangers, has a falling-out, then transforms into heroes, saving the day and one another. The familiarity proves a distraction. Will anyone be surprised when the tone shifts from a loser's dream world of living in an action movie to an actual action movie?
It doesn't help that the film falls victim to the same gay and race jokes that goofball bromances have such a hard time shaking. The shots are cheap and usually taken by Wayans, as Justin, at himself, who is — surprise — portrayed as having some effeminate qualities. Early on, he punches Ryan for “sneaking up on a brother.” Later, love interest Josie (Nina Dobrev) notes that Justin's “limp wrist” might be why he's reluctant to commit. Self-deprecation is a little unnecessary when the film's premise is two dudes failing so hard in their lives that they become fake police officers.
As always, the genre depends upon consistency. Though both Wayans and Johnson are rehashing some nuances of their New Girl buds in the characterizations of Justin and Ryan, the pair works well with and off one another. They weave in and out of being one another's straight man and are equally agile at both. It's comforting watching the prime-time friends together in the blockbuster, but it was disappointing to see any edginess for which the comfortable chemistry allowed room not taken advantage of.
Rob Riggle, continuing his streak of comedy film cops, offers the biggest surprise, nailing the role of an action hero–type character distinguished by slick coolness. (After playing so many joke cops, he was due!) Keegan-Michael Key, with Lil Wayne dreads and face tattoos, is wonderful as the key to unlocking what the mobsters are smuggling. He offers the biggest laughs, alongside Johnson's running gag of self-promoting his fake cop from officer to sergeant to detective.
A loser in a uniform is still a loser, and a stock buddy cop film starring a popular pair of sitcom stars is still a stock buddy cop film. Where movies such as The Heat or even 21 Jump Street make the formula feel new, Let's Be Cops and its meta-fantasy of the way games and films inform our idea of excitement comes off as watered down. Though the film has some charm, it's just like any of us who pretend to be something we're not: You can only fool everyone else for so long.