Monday, August 9, 2010

Bad Cop, Bad Cop: THE OTHER GUYS

It has slowly become apparent to me that Adam McKay is one of the best directors currently working in studio comedies. That’s not to say he alone is responsible for all of the recent great comedies, far from it, but he’s far beyond the typical style of a studio comedy that does little more than set a camera in front of funny people and wait for the magic. McKay’s a skillful filmmaker. He is at his best when he has plenty of genre or period bric-a-brac to play around with like the cool 70’s vibe of Anchorman or the deep-fried NASCAR-crazy South of Talladega Nights. He pushes the styles and production design so heavily that by the time his dialogue grows increasingly off-the-wall with bizarre one-liners and the plot slips towards the surreal it feels like a natural outgrowth of the surroundings. (Maybe that’s why his last film, Step Brothers, didn’t work as well for me, as it contained the same level of weirdness rooted in a world more like our own).

With The Other Guys, McKay gets a chance to direct a buddy-cop action-comedy.  With the help of cinematographer Oliver Wood (who has worked on the Bourne films, Face/Off, and Die Hard 2 in his career), it contains enough good-looking slam-bang spectacle to rival a Bruckheimer production, but it deploys its set pieces with skill and energy that could only arise from comedy. The film opens with a literal explosion of action-packed hilarity with super-cops Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson careening through a car chase gun-battle that is both thrilling on an action level and hilarious in its (barely) exaggerated presentation. Collateral damage flips around the frames that catch shattering glass and bullet impacts in the same moments as the overheated machismo of its two cops. By the time the sequence reaches its fiery conclusion, the movie had me in its grasp.

Jackson and Johnson do a fine job inhabiting, and poking fun at, the types of overblown action heroes they typically play. They’re quickly cast aside, though, in favor of the movie’s real heroes, the cops who sit in offices far more than cop cars and fire up computers far more than weapons. Yes, police partners Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg never patrol much farther than the water cooler. Ferrell’s okay with that, preferring to remain in his comfort zone as a meek, nerdy police accountant and going home every night to his plain wife (Eva Mendes). Wahlberg, however, is boiling inside, ready to spread his wings and soar as the hero he knows he is. After accidentally shooting a famous person (a funny cameo), regaining his dignity may be harder than he thinks. Soon enough, the mismatched pair get sucked into a larger conspiracy involving all kinds of very real threats, which include, but are by no means limited too, a mysterious Australian thug (Ray Stevenson), a slimy lawyer and SEC employee (Andy Buckley), overzealous colleagues (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr.), a creep of a Wall Street big-shot (Steve Coogan), and, of course, the police chief (Michael Keaton) who’s always saying that they’ve gone too far and then threatening to confiscate their weapons.

Under the direction of Adam McKay, from a script he co-wrote with Chris Henchy, The Other Guys has the specifics of a cop movie down perfectly. It’s full of fun supporting turns (between this and Toy Story 3, I hope we’re at the start of a Keaton comeback), funny little moments of detective work, and well-used action beats. But the film also manages to use the genre as a springboard for the kind of weird digressions that make McKay’s films so memorable. This film stays closer to what’s expected from a buddy-cop film, with the weirdest moments having nothing on the equivalent moments in, say, Anchorman’s news-team brawl or Talladega Night’s meal-time prayer. Here, the bizarre slips in through the flashbacks to Wahlberg’s shooting accident and Ferrell’s unpredictable part-time job from his college years, the phrase “I’m going to break your hip” spoken as a token of affection, a charming series of economic charts during the end credits, or a night of drunkenness portrayed through a frozen tableau of weird and (kind of) wonderful sight gags. It also fills up all the cracks in the dialogue with odd asides and goofy monologues, not to mention the way the action set pieces sometimes include dazzling moments of the ridiculous sailing in from left field.

Ferrell and Wahlberg make a great team as comedy, but a horrible team as cops. They manage to botch nearly every major moment of police work they take on, and yet because of the likability of the two leads, there’s always the hope that they’ll succeed one of these times. It’s strange to watch a movie where the two protagonists manage to mess up nearly everything they try. These two cops are always trying to figure out the central mystery, but can never quite get there. It’s almost like what might have happened if, say, Luis Buñuel helped direct The French Connection.

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