Bad Girls Do It Well: Bullock and McCarthy make dynamite pair in "The Heat"

The Heat (2013)
117 min., rated R.

It's hard to believe it took so long for women to break into the male-dominated subgenre of mismatched buddy-cop comedies (unless, of course, you count 1988's flat "Feds" with Rebecca DeMornay and Mary Gross). Nevertheless, it's about time. If anyone could make a tired, formulaic concept fresh and funny again, it's Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, and they do exactly that with "The Heat." Director Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids") and screenwriter Katie Dippold (who makes her feature debut here after writing episodes for NBC's "Parks and Recreation") aren't slouches, either, considering they allow their two female stars to cut loose, both verbally and physically, all while sharing gangbusters interplay.

This being an odd-couple comedy, there is the tight-assed drip and the foul-mouthed wild card. Bullock plays Sarah Ashburn, a straight-laced New York FBI agent who can crack cases but has no friends at work or out of work, except her neighbor's cat. Resented around the office, she has her hopes set on a promotion, so to prove herself, her boss (Demián Bichir) sends her to Boston to close a case involving an evasive drug kingpin known as Larkin. Expecting to work alone, Sarah is partnered with detective Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a raucous, slobby, biker glove-clad tornado who terrifies her captain (Thomas F. Wilson, better known as Biff from "Back to the Future"), as well as the perps she finds, and knows the Boston streets. She is the black sheep of her family for arresting her formerly drug-addicted brother, Jason (Michael Rapaport), who was involved with the wrong people, but Shannon is dead-set on finding Larkin. Neither woman wants the other's help at first, but, of course, these two eventually find a common ground and take down some henchmen to find the main sucker.

More surprising than it has any right to be, "The Heat" is all about chemistry and hearty laughs, which come quite often. Sure, there's a plot, but it doesn't really matter and doesn't get in the way of its leading secret weapons, especially McCarthy. After joining the guys' club of raunchy comedy with her Oscar-nominated breakout role as the memorably brassy Megan in "Bridesmaids," McCarthy further proves her talents as a game-for-anything comic dynamo who can also find likability and humanity in a semi-clinically insane character with aplomb. Already this year, the star had her first vehicle with "Identity Thief," and though she stole laughs, it didn't quite deserve her presence. This time, as loose cannon Shannon who keeps running into crestfallen one-night stands (one of whom is played by her husband Ben Falcone), her efforts aren't in vain. McCarthy completely runs with the hilariously coarse, machine-gun line readings (along with, natch, plenty of ad-libbing) and sticks the landing every time, even if it's just a throwaway line about coffee filters or Ashburn's "bank teller" wardrobe. And her delivery for a verbal running joke involving an albino DEA agent? Hysterical stuff.

Feig and Dippold not only give her better material to play with but an equal foil in Bullock, who's no wet blanket. One can see Sarah Ashburn as an extension of her "Miss Congeniality" character at first, but instead of receiving any major makeover, there is major vulnerability underneath this character's competitive and conservative exterior (she's a foster kid whose teachers only signed her high school yearbook). Greatly recouping from her 2009 disaster "All About Steve" and never one to be overshadowed by a co-star, Bullock still has that girl-next-door appeal but also reminds us how adroit of a comedian she can be. It's a delight to see the buttoned-down Ashburnand Bullockunload vulgar vocabulary, which she inevitably picks up from McCarthy's Mullins. And just when you think an obligatory drinking montage, as shown repeatedly in the film's trailers, would seem like it's been done to death, the pair pulls off their own comic-gold surprises.

Deserving of its R-rating from McCarthy's character firing excessively blue profanities from her mouth alone, "The Heat" is never afraid to get rude or violent. Shannon threatens to stab an officer with his own badge, throws a watermelon at an African American perp, and points a gun at a suspect's crotch, but they're all used to laugh-out-loud effect. An unnecessary tracheotomy in a Denny's seems a bit wedged-in, but again, the stars have such spontaneity and comedic timing that they make the gag work anyhow. Filling out the supporting cast is a slew of well-placed performers, including Groundlings and "MADtv" alumnus Michael McDonald, as a nasty drug lord with a fetish for knives; "SNL" alumna Jane Curtain who gets the best drive-by bird flip as Shannon's mother; and Nathan Corddry and former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre as two of Shannon's thick-accented brothers with trashy girlfriends. This material is more worthy of a 90-minute time slot than nearly two hours, and there's nothing too special or interesting about it as a technical production, besides a '70s-style title sequence cued to The Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power." However, funny is funny, and "The Heat" is frequently funny and already a lock for the biggest summer surprise. Other than "This Is the End," this year's movie comedies haven't had any stiff competition, until now.