'The Heat': Bullock, McCarthy salvage buddy movie ★★★

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Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips alongside Tribune arts critic Chris Borrelli discuss Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy's latest film, "The Heat."

With so few women afforded the opportunity to steer the course of a movie — any movie, on screen or off — even a formulaic vehicle such as "The Heat" arrives as a surprise and a relief.

At its sharpest, "The Heat" actually moves and banters like a comedy, with sharply timed and edited dialogue sequences driven by a couple of pros ensuring a purposeful sense of momentum. The story places Sandra Bullock, playing a fastidious FBI agent, as an opposing force to Melissa McCarthy's brazen Boston cop. Mostly they're funny because of the material; elsewhere, they're funny in spite of it.

The good stuff's in the first 80 minutes. Screenwriter Katie Dippold ("MADtv," "Parks and Recreation") and director Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids" and plenty of good television series before that) eventually settle for action-movie cliches and locales (oh, that old abandoned warehouse full of venal criminal scum) without a fresh take.

The violence in the final third becomes a drag. One of these days, we'll get a buddy-cop lark with the nerve to tone down the sadism; here, it's a threatened-torture scene, following an emergency tracheotomy performed at a Denny's. And product placement has gotten pretty strange at the movies lately. Between the pulverized IHOP in "Man of Steel" and the blood-spattered Denny's in "The Heat," it's like: How 'bout eating in tonight?

But we must appreciate the payoffs where we find them. Bullock has been hereabouts before in "Miss Congeniality," but this is one of her best recent performances, full of pinpoint details and quirks. McCarthy, already an audience favorite thanks to "Bridesmaids" and "Identity Thief," is learning to modulate her act and find variations on the theme of volcanic bully. She was born, in all probability, with the ability to slay an audience and detonate a punch line. But she's actress enough to learn the value of variety within a comfortable persona.

In "The Heat" we're closer to full-on action mode, akin to "48 Hrs." or "Lethal Weapon" territory than a spoofy affair on the order of the Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg movie "The Other Guys." Bullock's New York-based agent is bucking for a promotion. She travels to Boston to nail a drug lord. (We're done with the plot now, even if the film takes a full two hours to deal with it.) McCarthy's the tetchy local blowhard with a badge, a woman tough enough to put her own brother behind bars. As this odd couple learn to work together, the audience learns to forgive the scenes that don't quite work (an undercover assignment in a nightclub, where Bullock's character must fake skankiness) and swing with those that do (typically the off-plot riffs, allowing the actresses some breathing room).

A couple of examples of scenes that work? At one point, McCarthy bounces a little plastic Tic Tac box off her police chief's noggin, and the way director Feig films it — calmly, without undue emphasis — makes the gag even more successful. At another point, Bullock and McCarthy are in the frenemy stage of their working relationship, and McCarthy caps some fib or another with the line: "America thanks you." Bullock's reply: "And I it." Most buddy-cop movies, whether their focus is on explosions and stabbings or, in this case, explosions and stabbings plus some jokes, have zero facility when it comes to verbal flourishes along these lines. "The Heat" may overstay its welcome (a contractual obligation in Hollywood comedies these days), but I suspect audiences will take to it.

There. That takes care of the industry's semiannual investment in the "other" gender. Now we can get back to "The Hangover 4: Whatever."

mjphillips@tribune.com

MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence)

Running time: 1:57

Opens: Friday

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