Eddie Murphy first utters the signature catchphrase “It’s showtime!” within the first ten minutes of “Showtime,” but audiences will spend the entire film waiting for that declaration to take root. Chalk up another big-name star vehicle that fails to live up to a wealth of potential.
To its credit, this buddy cop comedy is rarely less than amusing, but given that the buddies are Murphy and Robert DeNiro, with the ever-dependable Rene Russo along for the ride as the female sidekick, the should have been more than that. It should be no surprise that “Showtime” is at its best when director Tom Dey steps back and simply lets the sparks fly between his two stars. Murphy is Trey Sellars, a hammy wannabe actor who bides his time as a lowly LAPD patrol officer. DeNiro is tough detective Mitch Preston, whose no-nonsense ways inadvertently hand Trey his big break. When a TV news crew intrudes on an attempted bust, a frustrated Mitch shoots the camera. The action lands him in trouble with his higher-ups — but in the demand of network television producer Chase Renzi (Russo, largely wasted), who proposes a new reality series centering on Mitch. But for the show to fly, straight man Mitch needs a live wire for a foil. Enter Trey.
This sets the stage for some funny scenes where Trey and Mitch are taught the tricks of the TV cop trade by none other than T.J. Hooker himself, William Shatner, who rather gamely pokes fun at his famously hambone acting approach. As good as these gags are, they feel like they are a warm-up for something bigger, better to come — something that, alas, never comes, for the film rarely ever gets as funny as these sequences. Credited writers Jorge Saralegui, Keith Sharon, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar were apparently of the mind that the mere idea of the cop TV show was strong enough to carry an entire motion picture, giving little thought to the actual crime-solving angle of the buddy-cop formula to which the film so slavishly adheres. Granted, laughs are the primary concern of “Showtime,” but it’s hard to get terribly excited over an elaborate car chase–however technically proficient it may be in execution — when the story behind it is such a dud. For the record, the basic plot has Mitch and Trey attempting to nab a gun-running drug dealer (Pedro Damian). The bad guy is a zero, and the film stops dead whenever Dey shifts the focus from the Mitch-Trey byplay to their ho-hum investigation — which, unsurprisingly yet still rather dismayingly, takes over for the would-be slam-bang final act.
But even the intriguing pairing of DeNiro and Murphy can’t prevent even the comedy in “Showtime” from wearing a little thin. The television satire (aside from the Shatner scenes) never goes above the obvious jokes about image, and in light of that the two stars (and their co-stars, for that matter) are given little more than a single, shallow note to play. Ultimately, “Showtime” feels far from its name and more like a feature-length coming attractions trailer, striking some superficially eye-catching poses and making promises of more entertaining rewards that never quite arrive.