It isn’t maybe halfway through “The Heat” when you realize its purpose for existing isn’t for the freshest reasons. Paul Feig’s new cop comedy, a spiritual follow-up to his brassy “Bridesmaids,” seems heavily indebted to pretty much every cop comedy you’ve ever seen, Feig dutifully playing the hits for audiences who have come to understand and expect the regular rhythms of this subgenre, from its exasperated police chiefs to a casual disregard for due process and even the old chestnut of overwhelming tension between bureaus. The hook seems to be that “The Heat” comes from a female screenwriter, Kate Dippold, and stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Fans of the Bechdel Test will be delighted that this film passes it early and frequently.
It’s impossible to ignore that this film, involving a not-terribly-complex drug cartel scheme running through the Boston underworld, exists in a world where usually men rub elbows and toss insults and women patiently wait at home, urging their men to return from work safely. Surprisingly, “The Heat” announces its intentions quickly, as the first sound we hear is the wah-wah of “Fight The Power (Parts 1 & 2)” by the Isley Brothers, suggesting that while the female leads in this actioner are forced to test themselves against male peers, it’s the film itself that feels like a reactive statement. Later R&B songs, dating from the Isleys to more modern, genre-spliced work, allays “The Heat” with the era of Blaxploitation: with little chance of equal representation in film, black stars and filmmakers instead produced work that either made whites ineffectual helpers and underlings, or nefarious, doomed villains. The representation issue was merely flip-flopped, not “fixed,” a political gesture echoed each time Bullock and McCarthy’s characters cut their masculine opposition to size with either a one-liner or even brute force.
Bullock is Sarah Ashburn, an FBI agent angling for a promotion, defeated only by her own hubris in the face of an obvious over-qualification for her current position. She boasts about finding the Red Hills Killer, though it’s clear she’s also reminding herself, providing the support lacking in a Screenplay 101-approved upbringing through the foster care system. When her new position is dangled by her exasperated boss (Demián Bichir, hopefully counting zeroes), she’s sent from New York to Beantown on the trail of a massive drug ring and a potential career-defining case.
Her vital information proves useful to local cop Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), who is introduced beating and bludgeoning perps for her own pleasure. It feels like an outdated notion, the idea that we’d react with joy to such an abuse of power: at one point Mullins flings a phone book at a suspect as if it was a move she’s seen in several shows and films, desperate to try it out on her own. Fortunately, McCarthy is a considerable talent. It’s not her fault that this year’s laughless “Identity Thief” trapped her in a hellhole of her own quirks, as director Seth Gordon insisted in bottling her energy for the sake of the plot. Here, Feig (who helped McCarthy earn an Oscar nomination for “Bridesmaids”) understands that whatever piffle of a story pales in comparison to allowing McCarthy a chance to utilize her brutish, foul-mouthed animalism. Mullins is endlessly vulgar, but McCarthy nonetheless endlessly commands the screen, in a performance that recalls a similar cool-attitude-under-serious-fire, namely the young Eddie Murphy in “48 Hrs.”
Ashburn and Mullins immediately feud as to who deserves to run point on this case. Bullock, an underestimated comedienne, doesn’t fade away despite the fact she’s playing straight woman to McCarthy’s aggression. In fact, lo and behold, it’s the rare film where the two leads have a certain animosity that nonetheless generates chemistry. Bullock finds multiple gears in her performance, varying between keeping Ashburn comically modulated but calm, and allowing her moments where her intellectual condescension spill in casual conversation. When its revealed that Mullins’ jailbird brother (Michael Rapaport) has ties to this operation (which never truly seems worth recruiting an FBI agent from out of state, it must be mentioned), Ashburn doesn’t seem to understand how to modify her class-based judgment with her overall concern for Mullins herself. Were the film these two just bouncing off each other, it would carry some added enjoyment. Unfortunately, it’s revealed that Mullins’ entire family are poorhouse vulgarians, as if someone took the tumultuous, competitive atmosphere of Mickey Ward from “The Fighter” and channeled it into a sitcom.
Much of these digressions paint “The Heat” into a corner, as the film grasps for new ways to stretch to a 117-minute runtime. At the very least, credit to all for avoiding any extraneous love stories. Ashburn has to be told that handsome Agent Levy (Marlon Wayans) is flirting with her, which she eventually acknowledges with a terse insistence that she doesn’t date fellow officers. (Wayans, for the record, remains a welcome and under-utilized presence, one that merits exposure in less-broad vehicles.) Mullins, meanwhile, has to interrupt several conversations when approached by local men whom she apparently seduced and abandoned. Onscreen, Bullock has romanced a couple of People’s Sexiest Men Alive, and yet paired with McCarthy, surprisingly it’s the latter that gives off stronger sexual appeal. When Mullins cracks about how she needn’t work on her appearance to appear sexually appetizing, it’s a joke, but matched up with Ashburn’s gawky discomfort in a miniskirt, even dressed like De Niro in “Midnight Run,” McCarthy simply gives off greater sexual allure simply by virtue of being comfortable in her own skin.
“The Heat” stops and sputters
through a deadly joke-less section in the second act, when Shit Gets Real, a structural
cliché compounded by Ashburn and Mullins bonding through an all-night drinking
montage. Here, Feig reveals his skill as strictly functional: at a moment when
the film should take flight and fully embrace either its Blaxploitation aesthetics
or the '80s-style shootout spirit, it does neither, flat-lining as it powers
through a dull mystery with an obvious reveal. There’s only so much you can “Fight
The Power” when the film is, in some familiar ways, inherently compromised. Studios are receptive towards the Apatow school of heavy improv, but you can’t
use that approach when the story has to fit snugly around costly action
sequences. Credit “The Heat” for being a film where the female leads are
neither helpless during action beats, nor are they ridiculously superpowered at
key moments, and no one cares to make a comment about these reversed gender positions.
One character dares to open up a debate about sex roles in the workplace;
because he does so indelicately, Feig expects you to cheer when he takes a
bullet to the head. To his credit, he is correct. [B]