"You are the man?" a crook asks Ice Cube as the cop comedy Ride Along opens. "I am the man!" Cube insists. You can't blame him for being defensive. Now a 44-year-old father of five, Cube is three decades away from the furious teenager who cofounded NWA his senior year of high school. He's allowed to soften — or really, melt.
Not that he has. Cube is determined to prove he's still cold and hard. In Ride Along, his default expression is snarl. He's quick to blaze bullets in a crowded mall, admits his Wi-Fi password is "SuspectShot23," and, when carjacking a valet to chase a perp, gets pissed that they offer him a Prius. ("Man, get that bullshit out of here.")
His Atlanta detective has two problems, and a conscience about ignoring the rules of engagement ain't one. First, the force is sick of him pursuing an unknown mastermind named Omar, and second, his sister (Tika Sumpter) is engaged to marry a five-foot-two high school security guard (Kevin Hart) who Cube grumbles is "about a chromosome away from being a midget." Someone should tell him there are worse things that could happen to his sister than a dude trying to put a ring on it, but judging by his daydreams of blasting Hart in the chest with his Glock, I'm calling Not It.
Hart plays a videogame expert who wants to shoot real bullets by joining the police. (No, there's no height requirement, but yes, Atlanta candidates have to be able to scale a six-foot wall.) Sure, he's a small man, casually hopping on a kitchen counter in his scenes with five-foot-seven Sumpter to gain a few inches and resigning himself to disappearing completely from the screen when she presses him against the wall for a kiss. But the script assures us he's got a big package — his game nickname is BlackHammer — and an even bigger mouth. Which he needs. With Cube in dour dickhead mode, the standup comic works double-time for laughs, just as he had to do in Grudge Match. He's forced to talk for two, eventually getting so hyped up he delivers his lines at a scream. Hart's a millimeter away from obnoxious, but his desperation won me over. At least he's trying to entertain.
When Hart convinces his brother-in-law-to-be to let him tag along for a day, Ride Along shifts into cruise control as just another cop comedy. Sort of. The clichés are all here: the big case, the tight-ass lieutenant, the partners who can't click. It's the same formula Hollywood's been using since the Keystone Cops swaggered down the street with batons. We laughed at them for being fools, just as we did at the badge-wearing buffoons of Dragnet, Police Academy, The Other Guys, and even Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Even when the cops are capable, say in Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon, they're game to make wisecracks about themselves. But in Ride Along, the joke feels like it's on us.
Director Tim Story and his four-man screenwriting team think the height of hilarity is Ice Cube smacking around civilians. Like Observe and Report, this ego-tripping law enforcer is cynicism disguised as comedy. The only difference is Seth Rogen knew his character was an asshole meathead. Cube is convinced he's the hero. I bet kids who've been stopped and frisked will crack up when he threatens to falsely accuse a boy of assaulting a police officer. Maybe they'll double over during the scene where he shrugs off the shooting of an unarmed man. You know who wouldn't smile at that? Young Ice Cube.
Forget going soft — Ride Along proves Ice Cube's got bigger image problems than kiddie movies and Coors Light commercials. It's not his Hollywood career that makes him a sellout. It's not even that the brave, big-mouthed teen who cowrote "Fuck the Police" grew up to play a cop. It's that the rapper and activist who recorded 1992's The Predator, a furious album about the Rodney King attack, is now embracing exactly the kind of violent, entitled, civil-rights-crushing cop he once demonized.
Police brutality demands a riot? This Cube thinks it's a laugh riot. Not that 24-year-old Cube was a saint. I'm still smarting from his track "Cave Bitch," in which he says he can't stand "no stringy-haired, blond hair, blue-eyed, pale-skinned... bitch named Amy." (Ouch!) Still, it's disheartening to see him in this boneheaded comedy that reflects — not dissects — our casual, at-least-it-wasn't-me attitude toward law enforcement abuse. And because he mean-mugs through the movie, looking like the same old stern Cube who rocked a Raiders hat instead of a badge, it's harder to notice the glacial change that's happened under the surface, especially when he doesn't seem to notice it himself.
After smashing up a farmers' market for a prank, Detective Cube turns to the camera and grins, "Today was a good day." Maybe for him. But I bet everyone else in Ride Along wishes his police had rolled right past them.