Kevin Smith's problems with Southwest Airlines made a splash this week, but I was more surprised to learn that he has a new movie hitting theaters soon - "Cop Out," a buddy-cop film starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. After watching the trailer and taking measure of the buzz, it doesn't look promising. If Kevin Smith's name weren't linked to the picture I'd have passed it over as some studio exec's sad attempt to resurrect the glory days of "48 Hours" and "Midnight Run." It's being sold as completely generic comedy, way outside the realm of Kevin Smith's trademark New Jersey slacker milieu.
Or to put it more bluntly, WTF? Why is Kevin Smith directing such a bland-looking commercial studio picture? Has he sold out (again)? Gone into a creative tailspin a la John Hughes?
It's simpler than that. Smith made it very clear that he got tired of making the low-budget indie "Askewniverse" films that brought him fame, and has been doggedly trying to tackle more mainstream material over the last few years. He's been working steadily, but none of his films have found much traction out there. The trouble is that his filmmaking sensibilities don't fit in kind of movies that Hollywood knows how to sell, and he's never really found a way to adapt his considerable talents to bigger, slicker features. It's not a good sign when a director's best recent work has been as an actor (in the latest "Die Hard" and "Catch and Release").
Both of Smith's non-"Askewniverse" films have been notorious flops. "Jersey Girl" was a sentimental family drama nobody wanted to see - neither Smith's usual audience nor the older demographic that similar films are usually aimed at. He came closer with "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," which was sold as a Judd Apatow-style raunchy rom-com, but it wore its geek-cred on its sleeve and came off as more than a little skeevy. Ironically Apatow owes a lot to Smith for pushing the envelope on adult content - but Apatow never went nearly as far.
After striking out twice with rom-coms, a buddy-cop comedy makes sense as something new to try that would still be in Smith's comfort zone. As much as his fans would love it, no one's going to let him near a superhero film, which are largely based on visual strengths that Smith has never demonstrated any affinity for as a director. I'm not saying it's impossible, but there's a big gap that needs to be bridged. "Cop Out" actually might be a step in the right direction, since we can probably expect some action sequences to fill in the pauses between the banter. But with so little of the director's usual flourishes coming through in the marketing, I'm getting worried that he might have reined himself in too much. On the other hand, if I was the studio, both leads have a better track record than Kevin Smith, so I'd downplay his involvement too.
I have to hope for the best, since I like Kevin Smith. He made at least one really great film and inspired several others. There have been indie directors like Sam Raimi and Christoper Nolan who made the jump to the mainstream successfully without losing themselves artistically. Since Kevin Smith can work a small budget and has a loyal fanbase, he certainly won't run out of chances anytime soon.