Highsmith and Danson are the undisputed alpha male cops of New York. Seemingly invincible, they fearlessly hurtle around the city’s mean streets at top speed, taking down felons in a flurry of crashes and public property damage.
Lurking in the background are The Other Guys, Gamble and Hoitz, the former a hopelessly repressed, pedantic desk jockey, the latter a seething, embittered former beat officer forced to take an office position after mistakenly shooting a world series baseball player.
A bang-on-the-money parody of the buddy cop movie, The Other Guys is blessed with three expertly judged comedy pairings. Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson are made for their roles as the strutting, streetwise Highsmith and Danson, while Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg spark off each other beautifully as the archetypical odd couple, Gamble and Hoitz.
The most important pairing, however, is arguably Ferrell and director Adam McKay. Neither has made a funnier movie than 2004’s Anchorman, and Ferrell is never funnier than when he’s directed by Adam McKay. And while their two previous movies, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers were only sporadically amusing, The Other Guys marks an hilarious return to form.
Ferrell’s straight-laced forensic accountant is markedly different from his previous comic incarnations. Where Ron Burgundy was a shouting, self-aggrandizing newsreader, and Ricky Bobby was a shouting, self-aggrandizing NASCAR driver, Allen Gamble is an uncertain, faltering buffoon closer to Stranger Than Fiction‘s Harold Crick. He drives a decidedly un-macho Toyota Prius, never fires a gun, and is frequently the butt of jokes from his colleagues.
It’s only in the second half of the film that Gamble’s demure front begins to crack, and his implausible college alter-ego, a jive-talking pimp called Gator, begins to resurface.
What makes The Other Guys work so well is the way it pairs Will Ferrell’s cartoonish style of acting against a group of actors willing to play their characters more or less straight. Mark Wahlberg’s disgraced, frustrated cop desperate to return to the beat is, in an unusual reversal, a more aggressive and noisy character than Ferrell’s, and played with a sublime mixture of anger, spite and incredulity.
Eva Mendes is also great value as Ferrell’s unspeakably picturesque wife, and Michael Keaton is note perfect as the gentle boss who has an odd habit of quoting R&B lyrics, and who moonlights at a department store to make ends meet.
The biggest revelation, however, is Adam McKay, who is a remarkably adept action director, investing his comedy car chases and shootouts with surprising energy and vigour. Where even the talented, versatile James Mangold struggled to marry convincing action with humour in Knight And Day, McKay pulls off the feat with apparent ease.
Admittedly, The Other Guys‘ sequences are more low key and less special effects-laden than Mangold’s movie, but the former’s are all the better for their clarity and old-school approach, which involves stunt drivers rather than copious amounts of CGI.
And when Highsmith and Danson’s hubristic recklessness puts them out of action, it’s a moment where black humour and surprisingly creative camerawork combine to create one of the most funny, unexpected sequences I’ve seen in months.
The Other Guys riffs brilliantly on the gulf between the cinema fantasy of macho cops and the mundanity of real world police procedure. While Highsmith and Danson exist in a parallel universe of outlandish high speed chases and gunfights, Gamble and Hoitz are more representative of the quotidian reality of life in the force, a beige existence of spreadsheets, coffee machines, bitchy comments and pension fund meetings.
Where Anchorman was more a string of sketches than a feature film, The Other Guys is rooted around a coherent, if somewhat familiar narrative, as Gamble and Hoitz are forced to put their differences behind them in order to prevent a billionaire businessman (Steve Coogan) from laundering a vast amount of cash.
Nevertheless, laughs rightly take precedence over plot development or even logic, and The Other Guys is absolutely packed with sparkling, abrasive and often surreal dialogue that is sure to be drunkenly repeated in bars for the next decade.
I could spend entire paragraphs on The Other Guys‘ quotable lines. There’s the priceless rant about tuna fish hunting lions. The bizarre sex talk regarding “a mannequin hand and an electric shaver taped to a golf club.” The vociferous and creative putdowns directed at Ferrell’s unassuming Prius (which spends much of the film covered in cocaine).
Then there are odd, disconnected scenes that nearly had me choking in astonishment. There’s a beautifully shot, Matrix-like sequence that provides a virtual tour of a debauched evening in an Irish bar, and a scene where an officer describes, in hideous detail, the awful things that have taken place in the back of Ferrell’s luckless, stolen and recovered Prius.
While not perfect (at 108 minutes, it’s a shade too long, and the first two-thirds of the film are more consistently amusing than the last), it’s nevertheless the funniest film we’ve seen in an otherwise laugh-free summer, and the closest McKay has yet come to matching the brilliance of Anchorman.
And besides, any film that finds room for a zinging joke at the expense of Maroon 5 has to be worth four stars.