If you’re going to make a dopey, bawdy, foul-mouthed, predictable lady-buddy-cop movie, you might as well make it funny. And until it overstays its welcome in the final half-hour, “The Heat” is shamefully funny. Also, if you’re inclined to consider any movie that stars both Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy — yes or no, you know where you stand — see this one in a theater with a game and tickled crowd. The movie’s a retread, but someone has gone to the trouble of filling it with fresh dirty air.
Katie Dippold’s screenplay plays to the stars’ established schticks: Bullock’s Ashburn is a prissy klutz of an FBI agent, sent to Boston to bring down a drug lord. McCarthy’s Mullins is a loose-cannon slob of a city cop who knows the local players. If this sounds like formula, it unabashedly is: From the 1970s typeface of the opening credits to the waka-waka sound of the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power,” “The Heat” frankly channels every action-comedy of the last 35 years. Especially “Lethal Weapon” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” It just does it with women in the lead.
That matters and it doesn’t. Once Ashburn and Mullins get over their sizable stylistic differences — the former likes to interrogate suspects using the Myers-Briggs personality test, the latter likes to beat them with a phone book — the movie nods comically but intently at the disrespect they face in the field from criminals and male law enforcement officers alike. Not that “The Heat” is out to make a feminist statement, but the stakes are there, and purposefully. So are a lot of vagina jokes. I wish I could quote some of the dialogue, but I’d get fired.
What makes “The Heat” work as well as it does for as long as it does is adroit timing and the genuine chemistry of Bullock and McCarthy, who seem to enjoy each other’s company immensely. The director is Paul Feig, beloved creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and the man who made McCarthy an overnight star with 2011’s “Bridesmaids.” He’s smarter than the average Hollywood hack, and he uses the film’s wheezy plot as framing timbers for sharp, splattery character comedy. You’ve seen the bar scene where the buddies get down and dance to a schlocky jukebox classic, but it’s funnier here than it has been in a long time, in part because the bar looks to be an old man’s dive somewhere on the fuzzy end of Dot Ave.
Yes, there’s a lot of Boston in “The Heat,” or, rather, what passes these days for the rest of the country’s idea of “Bahstan.” It’s thin stuff, borderline civic libel, but in the scenes with Mullins’s argumentative family, the laughs are there. I particularly liked the velvet painting of Jesus at Fenway, the Great Dane named Kevin Garnett, Ashburn’s near-total incomprehension when someone calls her a “nahk” and dear old Jane Curtin as a bitter pill of a matriarch. At least the movie gets our three-decker misanthropy right.
There are other characters in “The Heat,” but they don’t really matter, even the albino DEA agent (Dan Bakkedahl), Marlon Wayans as an unexpectedly courtly Boston G-man, and Michael Rapaport as Mullins’s mook of a brother. And at nearly two hours, the movie can’t help but run out of gas, stumbling through its climactic cop-movie cliches without bothering to send them up. Still, credit Feig for inserting the same gay subtext, consciously or not, that underlies almost every male buddy movie out there. Squint the right way, and Agent Ashburn and Officer Mullins make a lovely couple.
Mostly, though, the emphasis is on women being as joyously crass as they can be, in a movie that waves its R rating (for language and one unnecessary tracheotomy scene) like a red flag. Is this progress? Of some sort. Entertainment? More than it has any right to be. Junk? Sure, but that’s half the pleasure. “The Heat” gets its unofficial motto when Ashburn observes that a sandwich in Mullins’s apartment has been sitting there for a week. “Cheese doesn’t go bad,” says her partner. Not when it’s sliced this well.