FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) has a problem: she has to track down a vicious drug lord in Boston, and prove to her boss that she can work well with others, thus gaining a promotion. Enter Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a foul mouthed loose cannon Boston native, who gets involved in Ashburn’s investigation against her will. Can the two meld their unorthodox styles and catch the bad guy?
Yes, yes they can.
This is a funny movie, no doubt about it. I laughed more at The Heat than I did at The World’s End or This Is The End.
But man oh man, is it formulaic. This is the very definition of the “buddy cop comedy”, the sort of thing that we’ve all seen a million times before, with varying levels of success. You know the drill: two law enforcement officers, one serious, by the book, looking to climb the ladder, the other reckless, a loose cannon. Everything that marks one out is the complete opposite in the other. But they find a common enemy, and maybe their superior thinks that they could work well together.
Cue fractious beginnings. Cue gathering trust. Cue false defeat, followed by copious drinking and letting loose. Cue false recriminations between the two and a temporary break-up. Cue reconciliation and a bad-ass action packed ending. Cue hugs and fancy handshakes. Credits. Everyone’s happy.
The Heat has them all. The buddy cop movie can be played straight or funny, but the beats remain the same, and The Heat stubbornly refuses to break out of any of them. Bullock is the serious one, McCarthy the loose cannon, defined by the contrasts in their demeanours and lives. They find in each other a bond, whereby their differences translate into strengths. And so on and so on.
The relationship between the two main characters here is actually decent to watch, but only because it is taken to ridiculous extremes, which adds to the humour, in much the same way as some of those “Jackie Chan/Slapstick Guy” movies worked. They’re so different, it’s amazing, and the best parts are Sandra Bullock stubbornly refusing to move one inch from her normally reserved and respectful personality, or her bungled attempts to tap into the more loose cannon aspects of the job.
That’s not to say that The Heat is a total write-off in terms of plot. Some of the family stuff involving McCarthy, where she struggles to gain any sort of acceptance from her parents and siblings due to her job, was occasionally a little touching, mostly due to McCarthy’s performance.
But it all comes crashing down elsewhere. The actual main crux of the plot, the search for an infamous drug kingpin, is flat and unimaginative, harmed by the lack of an effective onscreen presence for the majority of the film. It really could be just copied and pasted from a dozen other plotlines.
Watching The Heat, I wasn’t really that interested in whether or not the duo caught the bad guy, or if Bullock’s character got that promotion. I cared a little bit about the McCarthy family sub-plot, but only just.
But I was still laughing, and that was largely at the constant trickle of jokes, but also at the plot-irrelevant set-pieces. In a weird way, this film and the two lead characters are set up like some sort of sketch comedy skit, like SNL characters who have been given their own movie. Those little set-pieces – the prostitution sting, the worlds slowest foot chase, the bathroom at the club, dangling the informant off a balcony, the tracheotomy scene – are great but really do feel almost disconnected from the main plot, as if the writers had those ideas in mind but were compelled to wrap them around some nonsense with a drug dealer. I almost would have been happier if the 90 minutes was just sketch after sketch featuring these two characters and their unconnected escapades.
I don’t really have much more to say about The Heat’s plot or story, since it is of the most cliché, well-trodden and ultimately shallow kind. It brooks little analysis, being just about only a vehicle for the two lead characters to wonder from zany situation to zany situation. It just really, really helps that those situations are pretty funny. This might have some of the same cast and crew as Bridesmaids, but it is certainly not going anywhere as deep as that film.
Bullock is basically a plank here. Sure, here character is required to be a bit emotionless throughout large parts of the movie, but Bullock’s performance goes beyond that, into firmly held “phoning it in” territory. She just sort of sleep walks through this production, content to let most of the work be done by others. The vast majority of the time, she’s just reacting to the stuff her co-star is doing, which is all well and good – a movie like this needs the “straight man” – but you just kind of wish that, when her character “let’s loose” near the conclusion, that Bullock would do it with a bit more enthusiasm.
Luckily, Melissa McCarthy is on hand to save the day. She’s sort of become a bit of a notable actress for this genre, and she does really, really good work here as the over the top loose cannon. When McCarthy spits venom, insults or just sarcastic quips, you understand that she really means them, and she gets the lion’s share of the best lines and moments, whether it is the “Where are your balls?” tirade against her boss, or the hilarious back and forth between her and the albino DEA agent. It isn’t just her appearance that marks her out in a film like this, though Hollywood is loath to put actresses like McCarthy into productions. No, McCarthy is a genuinely good conveyer of the craft, able to carry large parts of the humour side of things, and then do her best with the rather limp material and try to give the whole experience a bit of heart.
The rest of the cast are fairly limited and one note. Marlon Wayans pops up as an FBI agent in a role that is surprisingly understated for him. Tom Miller is the abused police chief, but he barely has two minutes of screentime. Dan Bakkedahl and Taran Killam are the DEA agents who get several great scenes with the main characters, with Bakkedahl, the albino, being especially funny. Michael Rapaport is McCarthy’s con brother, who adds just a little something more personal to the family dynamic at play there. Demian Bichir is the FBI overseer, who doesn’t really get to do anything of note other than be an occasional obstacle. And Spoken Reasons is Rojas, the informant who has a role in some of the better scenes. Michael McDonald is the psychotic criminal, who actually has a few effective turns as a crazed torturer.
As is typical of movies like this, cameos abound. Tony Hale, John Ross Bowie, Kaitlin Olsen, Jane Curtain and Zach Woods all pop up for small, but consistently funny parts. This kind of genre depends almost entirely on its two leads to drive things forward, with everyone else just there to support and play off them, so it really is no surprise that the rest of the cast has such limited screentime.
Visually, it’s just fine, shot competently. Nothing too special to talk about there, except for the opening titles, a slightly odd throwback to 1970s style title sequences that didn’t quite mesh with the movie that followed. Other than that, there isn’t really anything interesting to note from the visual style of things. As with much of the rest of the production, the camerawork is there or there abouts.
That CGI explosion near the end was terrible looking though.
It is a very vulgar script providing the humour, with the majority of it being foul-mouthed and orientated around insult and violence. If that isn’t your particular taste, then you’ll hate this movie, but being someone who can appreciate that sort of thing, I liked it. McCarthy repeated and never-ending tirades and strings of insults were very entertaining and never actually grated at any point, the writers being smart enough to mix it up with shouting and more softly spoken stuff – I think the funniest line in the whole thing might have been her retort to her Albino nemesis “Are you OK? You look a little pale”. In your classic buddy cop scenario you need the two leads to be able to play off the other and make the audience laugh. Bullock just about does it with her lame attempts to fit in the more rough parts of Boston, and McCarthy does it though trying to bulldoze down some of Bullock’s more entitled views.
The other aspect of the whole script though is the inclusion of numerous violent portions. That can be easy to mess up, but I think The Heat managed to get it right, never going too far, and always managing to put a humorous spin on things. Four main examples of that would be the slowest foot chase ever, ended when McCarthy pitches a watermelon at the (black) perp; the world’s worst tracheotomy, a really slow-burn idea that came to life in as a random and amazing a way as possible, leading to another of the films great lines – “I have a small cut on my arm, should I amputate it?” -; the duo threatening an informant by dangling him out of a balcony, only to involuntarily drop him; and then all the stuff with the knife near the conclusion.
Part of it was slapstick and some of it was gross-out, but I was still laughing, in a way I don’t sometimes laugh at that sort of thing. The Heat tries to push the envelope in that sense, and has little tact when it comes to making jokes that might appear racist – plenty of digs at “inner city” black youth – or discriminatory – the albino stuff – but I don’t think they crossed the line into hateful territory at any point. Satire is satire and something as OTT and overblown as The Heat should not be too worried about claims that its damaging race relations.
And beyond the humour, there are still some decent wordplay moments, like McCarthy mourning for her comatose brother, Bullock’s sudden breakdown into cursewords or just the general interaction between the two leads, usually characterised by McCarthy saying something shocking and Bullock reacting straight-faced, and vice versa. Good script, funny when it has to be.
Music wise its, again, just fine, a nice smattering of contemporary tracks with no score to speak of.
A movie like The Heat, as previously mentioned, is fairly shallow, lacking any real depth when it comes to things worth thinking about or messages that is trying to showcase. So, when it comes to themes, there really isn’t that much to talk about. What themes there actually are, are all ones that are common to the buddy cop genre. I could as easily be talking about Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys here.
I suppose the key one is a combination of friendship/family. Neither of the two main characters is very sociable with others, and both have serious family issues – McCarthy from her estranged one, and Bullock from her absent one (as an aside, another great line, “I’m sure it didn’t affect me”). In each other, they find an outlet for that absence – both in finding a friend, and it finding, as McCarthy very cornily puts it at the end, “a sister”. McCarthy manages, thanks to her friendship with Bullock, to find a reconciliation with her family, while Bullock finds, through her relationship with McCarthy, a family she never had.
Man did that sound smalzy. There really isn’t that much more to say. The Heat is a series of sketches wrapped around a basic plot, and has no real room for invocative imagery and themes beyond the very, very simple. All of that, or rather all of the mediocre attempts at that, are just window dressing for the stuff that the audience have actually come out to see: slapstick, verbal insult humour and a little bit of pushing the boundaries, Bridesmaids style.
The Heat is, most importantly, a funny movie. It should make you laugh, repeatedly. It falls down at so many other junctures, and it will never be considered a classic of the genre, but at least fulfils its primary purpose. If you liked the kind of humour that movies like Bridesmaids provide, then you will like this. I liked it at any rate: the performance of McCarthy, the set-piece sections and the script are all great. While it won’t be well-remembered, it does its job. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).