The cop-buddy flick has long depended on humor to get by. In today’s uncertain Hollywood times, when even the most thoroughly test-marketed product frequently fails to catch fire, the formula needs something extra, something more than the usual bickering detectives running down the perps and telling their captain where to shove it. Who knew that something extra would involve a light FM-obsessed Will Ferrell cruising in a Prius?
Adam McKay’s The Other Guys is a classic case of a summer film wanting to have its cake and gobble it down at the same time. We start in the middle of a car chase: a pair of hotshot Manhattan detectives (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, both chewing the scenery like it was candy) in pursuit of a band of Rastafarian hoods, leaping from cars, driving into tour buses, and blasting away. Any possible concerns about causing $12 million in damage to run down some misdemeanors are brushed away at a victorious press conference, where reporters ID themselves as “New York Observer... Online” or TMZ... Print edition,” and the two are treated like celebrity athletes.
It’s a promisingly ludicrous start, cutting right to the chase with the same cheerfully mocking bravado of McKay’s Southern-fried bonanza Talladega Nights. The film then shifts focus smoothly to Allen (Ferrell) and Terry (Mark Wahlberg, playing smartly against type), a couple of the paperwork-filing cops stuck with desk duty while the star detectives run around the city as if they’re remaking Cobra. These other guys are fizzing bottles of impotent rage, which they unleash on each other in hissy fits that recall the anarchic sprawl of McKay’s last Ferrell comedy Step Brothers. “I’m going to climb over that anger wall of yours,” Allen warns, “And it’s going to be glorious.”
Between these two extremes of movie-cop parody and randomized buddy comedy, McKay finds a solid groove for a time. Allen and Terry’s pariah status provides ample opportunity for abuse, particularly Terry’s backstory, in which he accidentally shoots Derek Jeter during the World Series (leading one cop to shriek, “He’s a bi-racial angel!”). Even after an accident thrusts Allen and Terry to center stage (relatively) and puts them on the streets, The Other Guys seems to know exactly how unseriously to take itself.
Somewhere around the time that we’re introduced to the rudiments of an actual story, though, a little of the light goes out of the proceedings. There’s a bad guy for the mismatched pair to catch, of course, and the fact that it’s Steve Coogan as a financier displaying a sub-Gordon Gecko oiliness bodes well for levels of comic genius to come, but these somehow never materialize.
At about the midway point, we realize that The Other Guys wants to be at least a partially normal cop movie, and not just a rag on the form. Here it turns from short-form surreality to summer action formula. The exchanges between Allen and Terry, while funny enough in their own right, never reach that pitched level of nearly homicidal strangeness as did Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s sparring in Step Brothers. Because of this leveling out of McKay’s style—in which he wastes far too much time crafting a mediocre crime plot whose pieces actually fit together—the finished product is amusing but rarely as funny as it could have been.
The Other Guys ends up overusing some initially effective running jokes, like the nebbishy Allen’s having a bombshell doctor of a wife (Eva Mendes) he utterly fails to appreciate, or the captain’s propensity for quoting TLC lyrics. Maybe that’s the price that needs to be paid in order to cover all potential audience bases and keep producers happy. This isn’t the greatest cinematic sin of the year (or week). And in the end, it beats another Lethal Weapon. After all, somebody has to pay for all those squibs and exploding helicopters.