Dammit, now I’m gonna have to see Anchorman again. Because I hated that first collaboration between director-screenwriter Adam McKay and screenwriter-star Will Ferrell. But I loved their Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. And now I love their The Other Guys. Could it be that they just hadn’t yet hit a stride that worked for me with that first project? Or did I miss something?
I’ll get to Anchorman again. For now, I am marveling in how McKay manages to get the tone just right in Guys in a way that other similar movies do not. There’s no phony sentiment crashing in here in the third act turning big puppy dog eyes on you, hoping you’ll suddenly feel for the cartoon characters we’ve been running around with for an hour and a half. It’s all absurd and overblown and — most importantly — consistently so through to the end. And yet, without having to try, it does end up being sorta unexpectedly sweet, too — like how Looney Tunes never had to ask you feel a genuine emotion for Daffy Duck getting his explosive comeuppance, but sometimes you did anyway, just as a sneaky side effect.
Guys isn’t only a parody of buddy cop movies, it’s a parody of male aggression both as it plays out in action movies and as how it plays out in real life. The entire NYPD here lives in the shadow of two hero cops played with over-the-top glee by Samuel L. Jackson (Iron Man 2, Astro Boy) and Dwayne Johnson (Tooth Fairy, Planet 51), whom we are introduced to in an opening sequence that is one of the funniest bits of action comedy I’ve ever seen… which is all the funnier because it’s really not all that extreme an extrapolation from the typical slam-bang action opener (as you’ll see when The Expendables opens next week.) But then we cut almost instantly to a counseling session for officers who have fired their guns in the line of duty… and the joke is not that the regular cops who fire their guns — which is a rarity in the real NYPD — might need counseling but the contrast between real police work and how movies depict it. (Jackson and Johnson, needless to say, expend more bullets in that one opening scene than the entire actual NYPD fires in the line of duty in probably ten years. And they don’t have to go for counseling afterward.)
But then the joke jumps to a new level, by introducing Detective Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg: Max Payne, The Happening), who is on a sort of punishment duty because he fired his gun in the line of duty for what turned out to be a really bad wrong reason, and one that he can’t live down. Now he’s stuck with a partner in Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell: The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, Land of the Lost), formerly a forensic accountant for the NYPD who loves the paperwork aspect of the job most of all. They can’t stand each other — and no one else in the squad room, up to and including their captain (Michael Keaton [Toy Story 3, Post Grad], who hasn’t been this funny in a long time), can stand Allen, either — but Gamble holds his own in surprising and hilarious ways. There’s an argument between the two partners about how a tuna fish might fight a lion that is funny and ridiculous but oddly logical, and is one of the cleverest comeback insults I’ve heard in ages.
Ferrell isn’t actually credited as a screenwriter here; McKay and Chris Henchy have that honor (Henchy wrote the dreadful Ferrell vehicle Land of Lost, which makes the wittiness of Guys’ script even more startling). And they just keep one-upping themselves, from Steve Coogan’s (Marmaduke, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) cowardly financier, who becomes the focus of a case Hoitz and Gamble stumble into and how he distracts the cops from their investigation, to the outrageous backstories they invent for their characters. They hit spot-on the clichés of the genre, from the etiquette of cop funerals to the singing of a mournful Celtic ballad in an Irish pub. (The lyrics are even funnier if you know how tragic such ballads typically are.)
The cast is perfect, underplaying rather than overexaggerating (even Ferrell, who isn’t generally known for his onscreen subtlety). When Gamble, in one chase sequence, laments, “I feel like it’s not fair that they have a helicopter,” and he’s got only a Prius, I nearly choked laughing, because while the line is funny enough, Ferrell’s distressed delivery is even funnier. And the extended joke about Gamble’s “plain” wife who is actually a mega hottie (Eva Mendes: The Spirit, The Women) may go on a bit too long, but lonely Hoitz’s reaction to her isn’t cartoonish eye-bulging but a longing sigh of “You’re a nice lady.” Wahlberg’s smitten awe turns what could have been dirty into something sweetly naughty.
Not every bit works, but even the bits that don’t fail honestly, not out of overstretching desperation on the part of the filmmakers to make you laugh. And those moments get dropped, and the film moves on the next funny bit. There’s even an SEC joke that works.