‘The Heat’ movie review: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy in undercover FBI comedy

The well-worn buddy cop genre is given a minor twist in The Heat, which pits a pair of mismatched cops against a mysterious Boston drug lord. And get this: they’re women. That’s not quite enough to save this formulaic action-comedy, of course, but a pair of well-matched leads – and a keen eye for comedy from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) – make this just about tolerable. 

Those leads are played by Sandra Bullock, as uptight FBI special agent Sarah Ashburn, who has trouble getting along with others, and Melissa McCarthy (who also rose to fame in Bridesmaids), as the rough-hewn, street smart Shannon Mullins, who, uh, also has trouble getting along with others. But they’re opposites!

Hey, no one said it was original. But Bullock and McCarthy are talented comedic forces, and play off each other wonderfully; The Heat is at its best when focusing on the two and their characters’ growing relationship. Many of the scenes between the two stars feel organic and even improvised, and their rapport makes the gag-laden dialogue that much funnier. 

But then, oh, there’s a plot in here somewhere… Ashburn, who manages to effortlessly close cases but pisses off her (male) colleagues in the process, is sent by her boss to Boston to investigate a local drug kingpin – and prove she can get along with local officers. The boss, by the way, is played by Demián Bichir, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in A Better Life but is utterly wasted here. 

Local PD is represented by Mullins, who somehow manages to chase down a perp in her introductory scene (McCarthy’s previous film, Identity Thief, had a lot of fun pointing out the actress’ lack of… speed). That perp just happens to be a low-level dealer in Ashburn’s investigation, and before you know it, Cagney meets Lacey. Oh wait. This has been done before. 

At its best, which is most of the first two acts of the film, The Heat just lets Bullock and McCarthy stumble around without much interest in plot: we see our heroines tracking down baddies in a nightclub, on the street, or at the bar, but have little understanding of how the movie has progressed from point A to B. Still, the chemistry between Bullock and McCarthy makes up for a lot: it’s just plain fun to see these two riff off of each other.

At its worst, The Heat attempts to get us involved in its plot with all the aplomb of an SNL take on The Wire. Unconvincing is putting it mildly: at no point during the course of the film are we under the misconception that this is how a real police investigation might operate. It’s all a joke, and the target audience may not mind, but we don’t give a hoot about the drug kingpin or our heroines’ pursuit of him. 

And then… wow. This mostly good-natured film gets surprisingly nasty during a third act that litters the screen with bodies and graphic bloodshed. This wasn’t family-friendly entertainment beforehand, McCarthy’s endless stream of f-bombs was a clue to that, but the amount of violence that unfolds during the film’s final act leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 

Apparently, the film was going for a Pineapple Express-like mix of comedy and violence, but it doesn’t work at all – the script, by Katie Dippold, isn’t nearly subversive enough to make that work. While director Feig has a knack for working some irreverent comedy into the proceedings, the violence really sticks out as something that doesn’t feel right. 

Still, The Heat is often legitimately funny (a particular tongue-in-cheek quip got an audible laugh from me) and might be worth catching for the Bullock-McCarthy pairing alone.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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