The Heat starts with a simple enough idea: Make a female version of the '80s buddy-cop action comedy, a genre so utterly played out that its plot aspects — showdowns in near-abandoned warehouses, armies of henchmen (and for what?), likable vigilantism, super-synthy soundtracks, tough lieutenants, deep mistrust that becomes hard-earned respect — serve as signifiers for an entire era of box office dominance. But replacing that hoary old genre's central nodes with intelligent women changes things. It helps that the film is stuffed to the gills with laughs, most of which have not actually been given away by its nearly inescapable trailer.
Sandra Bullock's character, Sarah Ashburn, is the FBI agent who wants to be respected so very badly. She's a Lisa Simpson without the existential sadness, a tough professional who believes in procedure and human decency. Melissa McCarthy's Det. Shannon Mullins is pure unfettered id, a raging wound who works from the streets up because she believes in stability and peace. Both women are fierce warriors, and both have their own plan for taking down the mysterious drug lord Larkin, a man who might as well have his own brand of chainsaw named after him.
And yes, they don't get along at first; and yes, of course, they eventually do — because it's the movies. But their journey means something beyond just satisfying audience expectations. As he proved in 2011's Bridesmaids, director Paul Feig is a big fan of smart women-centered scripts that refuse to ghettoize themselves as tragic romances, child rescue epics, or costume drama adaptations. Ashburn's DVR says it all as she flips between Foul Play and The Matrix Revolutions — nothing is quite what you'd expect.
Screenwriter Katie Dippold, a writer and occasional actress for Parks and Recreation and MadTV, doesn't go for simple cop-socky substitutions. Instead, she thinks through what it means to have smart women puzzling out these familiar situations, such as infiltrating the VIP section of a schizophrenic Boston dance club. (It plays DFA jams but also has bottle service — a smart little way of letting the viewer know the film is going to deal with immutable forces butting heads on every level.)
Perceptive and bawdy are but two of the ways that The Heat conducts a well-organized investigation into what makes people laugh and what movies are generally afraid to address about women's lives. Plus the supporting cast is tops: Jane Curtin (!), Michael Tucci, Bill Burr, Nathan Corddry and Joey McIntyre as the answer to the question, "After having seen The Fighter, what exactly is the deal with Boston families?" The Heat is a sadly generic title for such a lively, interesting film.