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'The Heat' is this summer's only major movie starring women

The action-comedy "The Heat" reunites Melissa McCarthy with "Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig and pairs her with Sandra Bullock as lawpersons.

Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy take on a drug ring in "The Heat." Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy take on a drug ring in "The Heat."
Credit: 20th Century Fox

'The Heat'
Director: Paul Feig
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Two years ago, “Bridesmaids” reminded Hollywood that there existed a certain neglected demographic: women. Studios acted fast — or waited ages to hire the man who directed “Bridesmaids” to handle this summer's only major movie to star women. Surprise megahits don’t always create a wave of knockoffs; sometimes they’re simply treated as freak accidents. It’s almost not worth noting that, however affable “Bridesmaids” was, it had problems, chief among them a token gross-out set piece that ended with Maya Rudolph pooping in a street gutter.

“The Heat,” which teams Sandra Bullock with Melissa McCarthy, features no such nadir, and the closest it comes to a disgusting, unnecessary showstopper — featuring a Heimlech case gone horribly awry — is rather inspired. It’s also more ambitious: an action comedy (or, really, a comedy with some action) in which uptight fed Bullock and slovenly, stubborn, sweary lone wolf detective McCarthy are forced to go tandem on a convoluted drug case.

Their relationship — with Bullock’s character inevitably loosening up, learning to appreciate binge drinking and, ultimately, running roughshod over habeas corpus and other pesky police rules — is mirrored in the casting. Bullock has spent most of her career playing it safe. Once she became a mega-star, she was done with edgy indie fare (which she never much did anyway). She’s never uglied herself up and rarely strayed from safe rom-com fare. Working in this improv-style of comedy represents a challenge (of sorts). Not only is she working blue, she has to keep up with McCarthy and a stable of old hat ad-libbers, and do it without her usual safety net. There is no male lead to lean on; the only romance is the platonic one between her and her female co-star.

She’s not the only person stretching her legs. McCarthy is far more abrasive than elsewhere, and she really pushes her character toward borderline unlikable behavior. Director Paul Feig — who overcame a career of flops, including the cancelled “Freaks and Geeks,” with the left-field “Bridesmaids” smash — isn’t exactly a stylist. But he knows how to relax and encourage the best from his cast, while not entirely forgetting about technique (he shoots in extra-“cinematic” cinemascope, and on film.) Spotty at first, “The Heat” only gets better as the cast loosens into their roles and the gags begin to snowball into something that’s worth seeing.