On paper, The Heat can't be more formulaic. Sandra Bullock's prim, pantsuit-wearing FBI agent Sarah Ashburn has to team with Melissa McCarthy's unkempt, unruly beat cop Shannon Mullins to take down a Boston drug lord and earn that coveted promotion. Both characters could easily have been clichés: Bullock's Ashburn is about as "by the book" as it gets, McCarthy's "But I Get Results!" Mullins literally throws a book at a suspect in an interrogation. It shows what feisty, textured performances Bullock and McCarthy give and what seasoned direction Bridesmaids' Paul Feig delivers that, at all times watching The Heat, you buy them as real people and not buddy-cop movie archetypes.
The Heat isn't just Starsky & Hutch minus Y-Chromosomes. Bullock and McCarthy are allowed to be just women, not women self-consciously playing male roles. Bullock's Ashburn works hard but lives alone, with only the Matrix Reloaded on cable and a neighbor's Tabby cat for company. McCarthy's Mullins lives in a Beantown tenement next door to some of her perps, and keeps an arsenal of guns, ammo, rocket launchers, and grenades in her refrigerator... just in case. They crash into each other when they're forced to work together, with Mullins asking Ashburn to publicly beg for her help, and do so loudly enough that there's an echo.
But Feig, and writer Katie Dippold, who has cut her comedic teeth on Parks & Recreation, do something smart: they quickly push the personality-clash to the background and throw these two pros into taut, suspenseful, sometimes outright brutal action storytelling. From the opening credits done like a '70s exploitation movie with splashes of yellow and orange you know that The Heat is going to be a thumbscrew-turning actioner about professionalism and revenge. Well, mostly revenge. There are shoot-outs, car chases, warehouse raids, and undercover detective work, all hurtling toward a finale in which there are real stakes: Mullins' family is targeted for assassination due to her efforts in rounding up the drug ring. One scene in which a perp tortures Ashburn with knife feels like something out of Reservoir Dogs. It's a brutality that gives heft to more light-hearted scenes, like when Mullins strips down Ashburn so she can go undercover at a rave and discovers her wearing Spanx.
As he did in Bridesmaids, Feig shows that women are capable of getting as down-and-dirty and partying as hard as any dudes, during an all-night bender in which the two cops drown their sorrows in epic amounts of alcohol. Not once during any of this are Ashburn and Mullins hung up on a guy though men are hung up on them and the pursuit of romance almost never comes into the story, which in its own way is quietly revolutionary. The Heat shows that sometimes you need to embrace certain clichés in order to obliterate others.