DIRECTED BY Paul Feig
STARS Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy
ON THE CASE: FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Boston detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) go undercover in The Heat. (Photo: Fox)
In the annals of buddy-cop flicks, The Heat showcases a pretty good team in Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. It isn't just the fact that they're two women in what's traditionally a male-oriented sub-genre — although the scarcity of such is partly why this movie stands out in a summer that is otherwise nothing but guy-on-guy action (at least in mainstream cinema; the indies are faring better). It's also because Hollywood has given us some pretty dismal pairings in the past: Jay Leno and Pat Morita in Collision Course, of course, but also Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi in Red Heat, Gene Hackman (oh, Gene...) and Dan Aykroyd in Loose Cannons ... the list goes on. Compared to some of the former pairings, McCarthy and Bullock might as well be Newman and Redford.
It's just a shame that the movie surrounding them isn't much better. Had the screenplay by Katie Dippold (a writer for both Parks and Recreation and MADtv) been a bit punchier, this could have been a noteworthy bookend piece to director Paul Feig's previous film, the uproarious and gender-smashing Bridesmaids. As it stands, the movie is almost pure formula, elevated out of the realm of the mediocre on the sheer strength of McCarthy's bravura turn.
McCarthy, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids, here plays a similarly unrestrained sort. She's Shannon Mullins, a Boston cop who's loud, crude and prone to physical violence, and who treats her superiors only slightly better than she treats her perps. Her first appearance finds her utterly humiliating a goober who's looking for hooker action while his wife is at home taking care of their five children. Among Mullins' moves? She calls the wife from the husband's cell phone to let her know what he's up to. It's hard to imagine any of the male cops we've seen in movies performing a similar action (maybe Russell Crowe's in L.A. Confidential, but that wasn't a comedy), and the film would have benefitted from more scenes that run roughshod over hypocrisy and misogyny.
Not that there aren't some additional digs. The other central figure is Sarah Ashburn (Bullock), and she's a hell of an FBI agent (excuse me; "Special Agent," as she reminds everyone). But her boss (A Better Life Oscar nominee Demián Bichir) might bypass her for a promotion that's rightfully hers for the mere fact that all of the other (male) agents don't like her. "I wonder why she's single?" one sneers, although, to be fair, sexism isn't the only reason the uptight and conceited Ashburn turns everyone off. That becomes even more apparent when she meets and initially antagonizes Mullins, who also happens to be after the same drug lord as Ashburn. But despite their constant bickering, the two women are forced to pool their resources to barrel through various criminal underlings to reach the top man.
While she's never been mistaken for a top comedienne, Bullock at least used to be lighter on her feet — I loved the levity her character brought to Speed, and she was aptly cast in movies like While You Were Sleeping. But she's become more brittle as she's matured, and while she proves to be a perfect foil for McCarthy, she's not particularly funny on her own (casting someone like Kristen Wiig or Tina Fey would have solved this problem). Fortunately, McCarthy provides enough stand-up material to fill the entire auditorium. Her humor isn't for everyone (as film critic and professional idiot Rex Reed offensively pointed out in his notorious Identity Thief review, in which he called her "tractor-sized" and a "hippo"), but if you don't mind streams of profanity triggering many of the key laughs, she's a class (if not classy) act, with impeccable timing and brash self-confidence. Only on rare occasion does the tenuous material defeat her (the prolonged dive-bar sequence, complete with the obligatory booty-shaking, is wretched). The majority of the time, she's providing The Heat with its potent firepower.