It opens with a roar, looking like one of those standard cop-buddy-action flicks. Detectives Highsmith and Danson (Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson) are tearing through New York City on a high-speed chase, with bullets blazing and cars literally flying.
They’re the two heroes on the force who always get their man — rock star cops who are the darlings of the media and are the biggest self-worshippers around.
But this isn’t about them. It’s about all those other cops who wish they were in their place. And through the strangest of circumstances (let’s just say Jackson and Johnson are relegated to cameo work here), a couple of detective slots open up.
Writer-director Adam McKay puts the question out there right away: Can a couple of mismatched detective partners step up to the plate? One is Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell), a “forensic accountant” — and former pimp — who kind of likes being chained to his desk, crunching numbers, instead of actually fighting crime. The other is Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), a disgraced cop — wait, that’s harsh; call him a highly embarrassed cop — whose fingers are itching to pull triggers every time he hears the phrase “211 in progress.”
And then there’s the bad guy, Brit investment banker David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Oh dear, no, wait, maybe he’s just another mixed-up victim who praises capitalism, brags about owning 18 Lamborghinis and has lost a pile of other people’s money.
There’s no doubt that all three of these folks are going to bump heads. That it happens over something as dull as scaffolding permits is a testament to writers Mc- Kay and Chris Henchy’s ability to make the mundane ironically funny.
But it’s when they go all out with the funny that laughter starts coming in buckets. There’s a central story, about the two detectives getting more and more involved in a confounding case. But orbiting around that are little gems of comic situations that come flying out of left field, burn brightly, get big laughs, then vanish in order to make room for more of them. So what if they only work because they’re so far out of context? They’re funny!
And with only a few brief reprieves for action sequences, the film stays funny in a variety of different ways. There are running gags about Detective Gamble’s love life (with some wonderfully played scenes featuring Ferrell and a totally game Eva Mendez), the Little River Band and Derek Jeter. There are some inside jokes — Ferrell, who starred in the abysmal film version of Bewitched, is heard absentmindedly whistling the TV show’s theme song; a poster from the underrated/overrated (depending on whom you ask) Stallone film Cobra is seen on tough guy Hoitz’s apartment wall.
The film also provides a kind of role reversal opportunity for the two leads. Ferrell, for the most part, plays it earnest, though he does let his crazy side peek through. Wahlberg spends half the film reacting in stunned silence to his partner’s often dorky, usually idiotic words. Wahlberg gets to let his temper flare, but many of the laughs come from his masterful portrayal of a slow burn.
Yet even with attention focused on those two, there are other standout performances. British actor Ray Stevenson, sporting an Aussie accent, oozes menace as bodyguard-hitman Roger Wesley, and Michael Keaton takes everyone to school in a display of impeccable comic timing, both in voice and facial expressions, as the overworked Captain Mauch.
The film does start to feel like a routine cop-buddy movie at a couple of points, but is regularly pulled back from that abyss by maintaining a sense of the absurd.