The buddy-cop genre has always been an almost exclusively male club. The plots of these films typically follow a strict formula revolving around two law-enforcement types whose personalities clash upon first meeting, but who must find a way to work together to bring down a big bad, violating the civil rights of every suspect they encounter along the way, before ultimately forging a powerful friendship with one another. That it's taken this long for someone to make a buddy-cop movie with female leads is mind boggling, and telling about the sorry state of Hollywood and its relationship with women, even in this day and age. Taking its inspiration from films like "48 Hrs." and the "Lethal Weapon" series, "The Heat" mostly sticks to the tropes of the genre. But it works, largely thanks to the chemistry between its talented and likeable lead actresses.
Starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, the film calls upon both actresses to play characters well within their respective wheelhouses. Bullock (in her first starring role since winning the Oscar for "The Blind Side" almost four years ago) is special agent Sarah Ashburn, an uptight, workaholic FBI agent who is extremely good at her job, but disliked within her department because of her massive ego and condescending attitude toward others. After learning that Sarah's got a shot at a possible promotion, her supervisor sends Sarah to Boston to lead an investigation into a massive drug ring, as a way to prove herself and show that she can work well with her fellow law-enforcement agents. McCarthy portrays Shannon Mullins, a spectacularly vulgar, loudmouthed detective with the Boston police department. Naturally, after getting into an altercation the second they meet one another, the two women learn that they're to be partners and are forced to find common ground if they have any hope of bringing down the nefarious kingpin.
I'd love to see McCarthy attempt to break out of the box she's built for herself a bit more in the future, but it's impossible to deny that she's great at what she does. She has the ability to remain a hugely likeable presence, even if the character she's portraying is a complete asshole. A staple of the buddy-cop genre typically revolves around how the partners grow and learn from one another, so I appreciated the fact that the script allows Mullins to be herself the entire way through, no growth required. Bullock is mainly tasked with playing the straight woman to McCarthy's whirling dervish of chaos, but doesn't allow herself to be completely upstaged and earns plenty of laughs herself ("That is a misrepresentation of my vagina."). Director Paul Feig's offbeat casting choices fill out the supporting characters with talented comedians, including "MadTV" alum Michael McDonald as a ruthless drug-ring enforcer, and Kaitlin Olson ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"), inexplicably sporting a ridiculous Russian accent. The scenes involving Mullins' cartoonishly belligerent Southie family are hilarious, though Jane Curtin is wasted as Mullins' mother.
I wish that scripter Katie Dippold (previously a staff writer on the TV show "Parks and Recreation") had come up with a more compelling, less by-the-numbers plot to contain these characters. But honestly, the plot doesn't usually matter in these films. What's important is the chemistry between its leads and the ways they find to make their unique skill sets work in tandem. McCarthy and Bullock have a funny, awkward rapport. And while "The Heat" would have been even more groundbreaking had it been a true action-comedy starring two women (the film is, despite its surprisingly high body count, basically a workplace comedy), Dippold and Feig ("Bridesmaids") are clearly more comfortable allowing the comedy to be front-and-center. Dippold adds in some scenes where Ashburn and Mullins have to deal with the misogynistic attitudes of their fellow officers, but mostly the film sticks to the well-worn formula of the genre. What's great about "The Heat" is the way in which it makes it clear that these are two women who are incredibly good at their jobs and don't care what the men around them think.
As directed by Feig, the films tends to stumble its way through its boilerplate action scenes. The director's forte is obviously his relationship with his actors; he's able to get strong performances from everyone he works with, but his movies tend to be shapeless, oddly paced, and devoid of any sort of noticeable style (unless you argue that those attributes are a style in and of themselves). I like Feig's films, but I can't help wondering what this one would have been if a director with a background in action had taken a crack at it. Maybe for the sequel.