Director Paul Feig’s follow-up to the critically and commercially lauded Bridesmaids, The Heat serves a similar purpose in giving a prime summer release date to a female-fronted comedy in a genre usually dominated by men. And fortunately, it looks set to follow in the success of Bridesmaids, having grossed over $130 million at time of writing from a budget of $43 million, proving that it is in fact possible to make a summer comedy which is not aimed solely at the usual teenage boy demographic. It is very refreshing to see a buddy-cop movie about female characters for once.
The plot concerns FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), a successful but unpopular by-the-book cop in search of a promotion, who is relocated to Boston to try and track down a drug kingpin with a habit of murdering people who try to sell on his turf. She is obliged to team up with local loose cannon detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), whose angry, violent, borderline-psychopathic approach to crime-fighting clashes quite badly with her own more methodical way.
The Heat doesn’t offer any real surprises on the script front. It’s content to tick all the boxes of the buddy-cop comedy plot checklist: Riggs and Murtaugh “ sorry, Mullins and Ashburn “ initially hate each other, but in the face of adversity eventually bond over drinks, only to have a falling out when things go badly wrong. However, in defiance of their superiors, they eventually overcome their differences and work together to take down the bad guys. On the screenplay level, Nicholas and Danny “ sorry, Ashburn and Mullins “ are very standard characters for this genre, the one efficient, but uptight and unhappy; the other unstable and in need of a moderating influence. Don’t expect any real invention or inversion of genre conventions here “ apart from the big, important one, anyway: that of having the cops be women for a change.
The script deficiencies are apparent elsewhere too. On the one hand, it’s great to see how a seemingly throwaway scene early in the film involving Ashburn watching TV serves as the buildup to one of the best jokes later on; on the other hand, this attention to detail falls apart in one very important area. When the characters visit Mullins’ flat, it becomes apparent that her fridge is full to bursting point with guns, including a rocket launcher which even made it onto the poster. The time spent admiring this armoury heavily implies a big action finale later on, as did the confiscation of David Bradley’s hoard of guns in Hot Fuzz. Unfortunately, while there is an Edgar Wright-esque tooling-up montage, the actual action extends to one grenade going off (rendered in rubbish CGI) and about three shots being fired in anger. The rocket launcher is not used at all; the rule of Chekhov’s Gun “ or should that be Chekhov’s RPG? “ has been broken. It’s disappointing, especially since Hot Fuzz did grand, barnstorming action on a far smaller budget than this.
And yet, in spite of all this, The Heat is a very good film. Not quite truly great perhaps, but definitely worth your time if only to send the message that people will pay to see a good, funny buddy-cop film with female leads. And it is down to those leads that the film becomes something greater than its script. Bullock has the tougher, more restrained and predictable role, but she really sells Ashburn’s discomfort at Mullins’ unorthodox way of doing things; and when she finally snaps, swearing for the first time and calling out her colleagues in the FBI, the extreme contrast with how she acted before makes for one of the film’s funniest scenes.
But the real draw is McCarthy, a big star now thanks to Bridesmaids, and she is a joy to watch here. Mullins plays out almost as a parody of the usual mentally unstable bad cop, by taking the character to such an extreme that the fact that seemingly everyone in Boston hates her actually seems quite plausible. She is crass, rude, offensive, violent, and absolutely, side-splittingly hilarious. From her introduction, where she almost breaks a man’s arm for soliciting a prostitute and then takes down the girl’s pimp by throwing a watermelon at him, the tone has been set. The humour isn’t very subtle, relying less on set-ups and punchlines and more on watching Mullins get angry and break things, but it’s very funny indeed. Hopefully The (hypothetical) Heat 2 will give us a proper gunfight; seeing McCarthy swear her way through a shootout would be priceless.
So, despite numerous problems, The Heat is absolutely worth going to see. At the end of the day, almost anything can be forgiven in a comedy as long as it’s funny, and The Heat is extremely funny. But more than that, it’s a sign of positive change in Hollywood: even though the executives were apparently sceptical about a female-led action film, it was still made, and on a fairly big budget as well. Between this, Bridesmaids, and The Hunger Games, it’s finally becoming apparent to the studios that women can take the lead in big summer films, and that said films can make a lot of money. Apparently the quality of the film is more important than the gender of the lead character. Who knew?