In buddy-cop movies, there are always Riggsand-Murtaugh-type supercops storming around all over the place, getting into high-speed chases, blowing things up and causing truly egregious amounts of property damage. In the bizarre and hilarious new action-comedy The Other Guys, those cops in the NYPD are Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson), and they get all the glory while everybody else has to do the desk jobs, answer the phones and file the paperwork. But like a Beverly Hills Cop movie that follows around Judge Reinhold, this movie wants to know what those guys in the background are doing.
Two of those titular guys are Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and his partner, Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). Allen is a forensic accountant who is happy to sit at his desk and fill out reports all day. Unfortunately for Allen, Terry doesn’t agree. He’s a perpetually enraged loose cannon who had a promising career, but was relegated to a desk job after he accidentally shot Derek Jeter before a World Series game at Yankee Stadium, ruining the team’s chances at a championship. Terry is chained to his desk with Allen but itches to get back out on the street.
The two soon stumble onto a plot involving Steve Coogan as an oily British billionaire who is running a huge Ponzi scheme and being targeted by some of the people whose money he lost. In trying to catch him, though, Terry and Allen find that nobody will believe the word of a couple of desk jockeys over a Wall Street tycoon.
The movie makes a lot of hay by subverting the conventions of action films. Just check out the scene in which Allen and Terry are knocked off their feet by an explosion, and instead of machismo we get Ferrell writhing on the ground exclaiming, “I need an MRI! I have soft tissue damage!” While the movie begins as a buddy-cop spoof, it isn’t content to stay one. Instead, the film deepens its characters so that they’re more than just the usual clichéd mismatched partners, and it gets most of its laughs from peeling back the various layers of crazy that Ferrell and Wahlberg’s characters have amassed.
Wahlberg is hilarious here, always seeming to be on the verge of exploding with rage. He has a dubious record as a leading man, turning in bland performances in terrible films such as The Happening and Max Payne, but Wahlberg has often been excellent when he got to hang around the edges of the movie fuming, as in I Heart Huckabees and The Departed. Here, though, he manages to turn those strengths into a leading performance, and in doing so, manages to deepen the character considerably past merely being a belligerent lunkhead, exposing Terry’s many quirks and insecurities. For example, his performance turns quiet and delicate in the scenes in which he is truly stricken, as when he describes the fateful incident with Jeter.
Ferrell is funnier here than in any of his last three or four movies, largely because his character is a little different than those he has played lately. His best-known characters—Ron Burgundy in Anchorman and Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights—are egotistical and brash, but his character here is an aggressively complacent milquetoast, gullible and oblivious and buttoned down. To be fair, Allen is as nuts as Ferrell’s other characters—he seems to be unaware that his wife, Sheila (Eva Mendes), is incredibly hot, referring to her as a “big old lady,” and he has a violent alter-ego named Gator who pops up from time to time—but the movie takes its time teasing out his true craziness. The opportunity to start small and dig deeper seems to give Ferrell more interesting material to play with than when he has to start out big and sustain it for an entire film.
However, some of the supporting characters never try to hide their madness. Mendes is very funny as Ferrell’s wife, and she makes her character unhinged from the start, particularly during the scene in which she and Ferrell sing a duet of a song called “Pimps Don’t Cry.” And Michael Keaton, as the guys’ boss, isn’t the stereotypical screaming captain these films usually have; he’s much weirder. He works a second job at Bed, Bath & Beyond to put his kid through college (“so he can explore his bisexuality and become a DJ”) and mysteriously quotes TLC lyrics in conversation.
For such a silly bit of nonsense, the film is oddly realistic at times. After all, its main theme is that the real heroes aren’t the flashiest guys, but rather the ones who are doing their jobs quietly, but well, day in and day out. And the film takes on the very timely issue of the recent financial crisis with its villains, who are the banal Wall Street bad guys we have seen in real life, not the usual flashy movie villains. When Terry assumes the villains must be drug dealers, Allen tells him, “This isn’t Miami Vice. Grow up!”
Of course, none of that real-world stuff really matters. The real joys in the film come from the absurd interplay between Ferrell and Wahlberg, whose conversations often fly off into insane tangents (such as when the two debate whether a lion or a school of tuna is more dangerous), and the film’s many other bizarre side trips. The film was directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman), and written by McKay and Chris Henchy (with plenty of improvisation from all involved), and while the movie’s plot is often funny, it is in the film’s seemingly random detours that the film truly shines. An example is the sequence in which Coogan repeatedly distracts Terry and Allen from questioning him with tickets to Knick games or musicals, or the whisper fight some characters get into at a funeral.
Toward the end, The Other Guys begins to fall prey to the clichés of the films it’s trying to satirize, with copious gunplay and over-the-top action scenes, but while the film is not a masterpiece, with its share of gags that fall flat, it is a refreshingly bizarre film that has great performances by some very funny people, and more laughs than any other comedy this summer.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.