After a season of coed action comedies ranging from “Date Night” to “Knight and Day,” it figures Adam McKay would be the one to bring back the bromance, milking the testosterone-fueled buddy-cop genre for touchy-feely fun in “The Other Guys.” Starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as two paper pushers who’d surely be sidelined in a traditional policer, pic sets out with more of a plot than such previous McKay comedies as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” That should push B.O. further, but it also becomes the film’s undoing, as the laughs ultimately take a backseat to a convoluted white-collar crime story.
In keeping with previous Ferrell showcases, “The Other Guys” identifies a character who could easily support a series of “Saturday Night Live” sketches — in this case, milquetoast police accountant Allen Gamble (Ferrell), whose perky posture and contented smile reveal the intense satisfaction he takes from being a team player, even if the closest he comes to the action is typing up case reports for star cops Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson).
We’ve seen variations on this too-naive-to-know-better routine from Ferrell before, which makes Wahlberg the pic’s casting coup. As Terry Hoitz, Wahlberg plays a screw-up who’d give anything to be the sort of tough-guy hero the actor usually plays (where other pics have exploited Wahlberg’s abs, “The Other Guys” goes out of its way to make it look as if he gets by on an all-doughnut diet). Hoitz would probably be in the field, too, if it weren’t for a trigger-happy accident at a Yankees game.
Hoitz sees his chance after a particularly overzealous stunt by Highsmith and Danson puts the spotlight-hogging cops out of commission, with the desk jockey dragging his Prius-driving, wooden gun-wielding partner Gamble into the fray. The pair hardly get along at first, but the film doesn’t exploit their differences for long, preferring to concentrate on the mushier notion that their relationship matters. Yes, there’s a case to be solved, but Gamble’s real mission, as he tells hot-headed Hoitz, is “to climb over that anger wall of yours.”
Just when things should be getting interesting, their captain (Michael Keaton, playing babysitter to a department of overgrown kids rounded out by Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr.) separates the two. Putting more stock in their relationship than we do, the pic serves up a mopey montage of the partners trying to make do without each other — an uneven sequence that plays like something out of a romantic comedy.
Luckily, the two leads have a special kind of chemistry. With a few flamboyant exceptions (such as Hoitz insisting, “I’m a peacock. You gotta let me fly!”), Wahlberg is tasked with playing it straight, while Ferrell is free to improvise at will. There’s more room for such comic latitude early in the film — including a rowdy run-in with Gamble’s ex-girlfriend (Natalie Zea) and her emasculated new beau (Brett Gelman) — but once the plot kicks in, there’s less opportunity for wayward jokes, leaving the movie conspicuously less funny in the process.
Watching Hoitz and Gamble butt heads, there’s little doubt a perfectly entertaining movie could be made without leaving the office, but these characters are clearly not alone in their craving for some action. In a field dominated by Michael Bay types, McKay qualifies as one of “the other guys,” a director more given to orchestrating punchlines than pyrotechnics. Here, he understandably seizes the opportunity to blow stuff up, although it would be more accurate to say the opportunity overtakes him, as the laugh-a-minute pace established in the first act downshifts into something more akin to a standard ’80s buddy-cop movie (a la “Lethal Weapon” or “48 Hrs.”) once the procedural elements take hold.
McKay and co-writer Chris Henchy may have set out to make a satire of such pics, riffing on everything from the occasional ruminative saxophone solo to the obligatory character-grounding domestic scenes (in a recurring joke, Eva Mendes plays Gamble’s impossibly hot wife). But the result could pass for one of those films, assuming you can get past the tongue-in-cheek approach to every setpiece.
McKay is obviously having a blast staging explosions, chases and even an epic Mexican standoff (backed by “Bourne” producer Patrick Crowley and an all-pro crew, the action looks aces); a pity that the pic bogs down in an unnecessarily complicated evil-investor plot. It was a clever choice to make the villain a slimy Wall Street racketeer (Steve Coogan), giving the film a chance to lob a few timely critiques at our current financial predicament. But that theme feels only half-baked (awkwardly resurfacing as a PowerPoint-style economics lesson over the end credits), while the mystery effectively forces Hoitz and Gamble into the shoes of competent cops, more or less defusing the underlying beta-male concept that some guys simply weren’t born to lead.