The groundbreaking “Bridesmaids” put director Paul Feig and co-star Melissa McCarthy into the A-list. They reunite for “The Heat,” pulling Sandra Bullock into their potty-mouthed orbit.
Just as “Bridesmaids” wasn’t the first film to put a cast of women in a raunchy comedy, “The Heat” is not the first to do a female take on “Lethal Weapon.” Like “Bridesmaids,” though, “The Heat” is the first one to do it right. For the first two-thirds, anyway.
Bullock and McCarthy are law enforcement officers forced to work together on a big Boston drug case. Both have alienated their male co-workers, though for opposite reasons. Bullock’s FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn rigidly follows regulations, and she lords it over the men on her team when she finds evidence they overlooked.
McCarthy’s detective Shannon Mullins is such an undisciplined bulldog of a cop that the men in her precinct are terrified of her. So is everyone else. If any of the citizens she routinely brutalizes ever hired a lawyer, the rest of the precinct wouldn’t have to worry about her much longer.
While there is a lot of Murtaugh and Riggs in Ashburn and Mullins’ partnership, there also is a lot of Felix and Oscar. Ashburn is prissy and makes controlled gestures, while Mullins is a slob who moves like a swerving dump truck. The most scandalous words to pass Ashburn’s lips are “bull poo poo,” while Mullins cusses thoroughly enough to make every sailor in the fleet blush.
Their personalities clash, as they were designed to, and Bullock and McCarthy are hilarious as they trade insults and criticisms. “The Heat” may feature the first good cop/bad cop routine where the bad cop assaults the good cop instead of the suspect.
The women are competitive as well, trying to be the first to do everything. This leads to some fine physical comedy, such the moment each refuses to let the other enter an apartment building first, so they go through the door with their legs tangled every which way. This also leads to an odd and unnecessary scene where a botched attempt at an emergency tracheotomy becomes a bloody mess.
While the two women bicker with each other, the script by “Parks and Recreation” writer Katie Dippold never lets us forget that the men of the world are arrayed against them as well – although their immediate supervisors, Demián Bichir (“A Better Life”) of the FBI and Tom Wilson (Biff from the “Back to the Future” series) of the Boston PD, are supportive in small ways. A DEA agent wants Ashburn and Mullins off the case because their estrogen will get in the way, and one of the villainous drug lords proposes a disturbingly misogynistic torture.
With several references to “Foul Play,” particularly its albino assassin, Feig and Dippold indicate they want “The Heat” to work as a thriller as well as a comedy. For a while, Feig subtly carves away the clichés of cop movies. Listen for Bullock’s response when McCarthy says, “There’s our man.” Later, an evidence tech’s moment of glory is ruined when the two women jump to all his conclusions.
But buddy cop movies carry their own code of clichés. Eventually “The Heat” succumbs to them, and not to point them out ironically. This decline starts with the inevitable moment when Mullins brings Ashburn to a dive and gets her uptight partner drunk. They then bond while dancing to classic rock songs on the jukebox. They do not, thankfully, sing karaoke.
After that, the rest of the story is predictable. I lost track of the number of times Ashburn and Mullins get thrown off the case. The identity of the mysterious drug lord is easy to guess. Just look for the character who keeps turning up yet doesn’t appear to serve a purpose in the story.
In keeping with the film’s themes, the male actors don’t have much to do. Michael Rappaport plays McCarthy’s brother, whom she put away on drug charges. Marlon Wayons plays an FBI agent who is nice to Bullock, but she is too dense to realize it. Jane Curtin plays McCarthy’s mother, angry that she sent Rappaport to prison, but Curtin is all but wasted in the role.
Early on, “The Heat” earns a hard R rating for its language. Eventually it earns it for its sometimes sadistic carnage as well, which the MPAA helpfully defines as “some violence.” A torture scene is played for laughs, which is a nervy move that Feig gets away with. But the more obvious joke of McCarthy pulling her weapon on an unarmed civilian isn’t funny the first time, and by the 12th time it becomes a civil rights issue.
Even though the cop plot becomes routine near the end, the humor still pulls out some surprises. The rivalry between Bullock and McCarthy during the first two-thirds of the movie is breathtakingly funny. It also is difficult to describe because much of it is physical and McCarthy’s dialogue cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper.
The name of the buddy cop genre implies the cops must become buddies, so we know the spark that drives the comedy between Bullock and McCarthy must fade at some point. But while this spark glows, “The Heat” is so outrageously funny it makes up for a disappointing third act.