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August 15, 2010

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A buddy-cop parody that works

IF the mismatched-buddy cop movie seems egregiously overdone, the idea of a parody of that genre would seem especially needless, which is what makes "The Other Guys" such a wonderful surprise.

On paper, this could have been painfully lame. Will Ferrell is doing a variation on his tried-and-true film persona: the overly earnest guy who is totally confident and oblivious to his buffoonery. Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile, is playing with his screen image as a tough guy and a hothead, doing a version of his Oscar-nominated role in "The Departed." And the joke you see in the TV commercials, Ferrell blasting Little River Band's mellow 1970s hit "Reminiscing" on the way to a crime scene, is good for a laugh but it makes you wonder: is that the best they have?

It all could have been too familiar, too cute. But there are just enough tweaks to these characters and this formula, and a refreshingly weird kinky streak throughout, that make "The Other Guys" an unexpected kick. It runs out of steam in the third act and probably could have been tightened a bit. A big reason for the film's success is that the action sequences are played totally straight. The chases and shootouts on the streets of New York are elaborately staged and detailed, down to the cliche that the bad guys always have crazy amounts of automatic weaponry but still manage to miss our heroes, even when firing from a helicopter. There's also a homage to John Woo that takes place in a glassed-off conference room with documents and bullets and bodies flying in artful slow-motion; again, because it is choreographed so well and not played cartoonishly, it is more effective.

The comedy similarly has a deadpan tone; it is self-aware but not tongue-in-cheek. This is not over the top like a "Scary Movie" parody, and that makes it more appealing, too. The tossed-off pop culture references feel naturally like a part of the fabric.

Ferrell stars as Allen Gamble, a New York police detective with the demeanor (and wardrobe) of an accountant. He would rather solve crimes from the comfort and safety of his desk, but he always is happy to support his colleagues with some hearty words of encouragement. Wahlberg plays his partner, Terry Hoitz, who used to be out on the streets and is itching to get back, but is stuck in the office with Allen because of an accidental shooting. (There's a flashback to it, and if you're a Boston Red Sox fan, you will enjoy it.)

The city's hotshot detectives (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, also toying with their larger-than-life personae) dominate by solving the most high-profile cases. But Allen and Terry stumble across something that looks shady involving corporate financial guru David Ershon (Steve Coogan), a sort of British version of Bernie Madoff. Coogan adds his own style of dry humor to the mix and is among a strong supporting cast that includes Michael Keaton, Rob Riggle and Eva Mendes.

Speaking of Mendes, she is crucial to a running joke that, surprisingly, works the whole time. We won't say much more about it, though. You should really meet and get to know these guys for yourself.


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