There's an appealing hint of misadventure in a title like "Let's Be Cops," as well as in the first few scenes in which down-on-their-luck roommates Ryan (Jake Johnson), a failed football player, and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.), a video game designer, realize the power rush of impersonating authority.
After the humiliation of mistakenly wearing costumes to a snooty mask party, they mope along the Sunset Strip until they realize the demeanor of everyone around them changes: Strangers move out of the way, party girls treat them as hot guys in uniform and "Freeze!" becomes a magical time-stopper. They even agree to be fake fake cops for a group of middle-aged women who take them to be strippers.
Like any sharp comic premise, the promising tang of something anarchically amusing is in the air, which makes the rote, slipshod and unfunny rest of the movie all the more dispiriting — like a drug that's as much fun as precinct paperwork.
"Let's Be Cops" is its own movie in disguise: a role-playing romp that's actually a generic buddy-cop movie. Director Luke Greenfield and his co-writer, Nicholas Thomas, saddle their newly transgressive bros with an uninspired heroes-and-villains story involving Russian gangsters threatening immigrant cafe owners and the pretty waitress (Nina Dobrev) who becomes Justin's new girlfriend. When Andy Garcia shows up as the criminal overlord, you know he's not supposed to be funny. That's not a good sign.
Even the shoehorning in of an emotional trajectory for Ryan and Justin — Ryan's found a career calling! Justin learns to be assertive! — feels like something out of a recruitment video for the police force rather than a rascally comedy dismantling the culture of police from within.
Johnson and Wayans are likable enough. They have a rapport from their work together on the sitcom "New Girl" that they readily take advantage of here. But the movie relies too much on the same comic tension in each scene: Johnson is the gung-ho one, Wayans says no (a lot).
There's a slight spark when Keegan-Michael Key shows up as a dreadlocked Dominican henchman, but elsewhere, the movie's reliance on dull improvisational exchanges over true comedic ingenuity grows tiresome. Even the raunch feels stale, with a naked sweaty fat man bit that assumes "Borat" was a lifetime ago.
The hilarious "22 Jump Street" was just this summer, however, which only exposes "Let's Be Cops" as the one hopelessly trying to pass as a comedy.
'Let's Be Cops'
MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references, graphic nudity, violence and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times