After obligatory helicopter views of New York's skyline open Adam McKay's The Other Guys, we're introduced to Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson), a duo of headline-grabbing, unflappable supercops who keep the city exciting, if not safe, with law enforcement by the Michael Bay book.
The Other Guys aren't them. This is the fourth feature collaboration between McKay and Will Ferrell, who make baggy improvisational comedies about utter boobs (Anchorman's Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights' Ricky Bobby) like Detectives Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). Gamble is an emasculated Prius owner transferred from forensic accounting who volunteers to do everyone else's paperwork so he can stay safely at his desk. Loose-cannon Hoitz seems to have been partnered with Gamble as punishment — he's been the departmental black sheep since a humiliating incident that earned him the nickname "Yankee Clipper."
Laying out its premise, The Other Guys is loose and funny. Michael Keaton is welcome as the captain; the classic cop-opera scene of a chest-thumping station-house brawl becomes a quiet, six-inch-voices huddle at a solemn official event; and the fall from grace for the station idols is a giddy sight gag in an otherwise functionally shot movie.
Don't expect Wahlberg to bring his compact, cagey, and deadpan sergeant from The Departed as straight man to the Ferrellian psycho — McKay's operating principle is that if one idiot is funny, two are hilarious. So Wahlberg is given to peevish, hot-headed ranting in a breathy singsong, while Ferrell, playing supersquare, still periodically lets loose to chase riffs until they collapse, as when Gamble whips one of Hoitz's bad metaphors into a fervid monologue about fish-versus-lion combat.
And for a while, the gears catch. Hoitz comes over to his partner's house and is floored by his is-she-really-going-out-with-him gorgeous wife (Eva Mendes). Ferrell's boorishness at the dinner table (he insistently notes his wife's "plainness"), Mendes's domestic glow, and Wahlberg's hypnotized puppy love make a tickling trio of mutually oblivious reactions. One wishes for more of these well-set-up scenes later, as the leads are given little to do but trade off one-liners while treading the waters of an increasingly choppy plot.
Gamble and Hoitz catch the scent of something big during a routine pickup of a Wall Street hustler (Steve Coogan), busted after a speech at "The Center for American Capitalism." Anyone who knows McKay's wider body of work knows his political grievances — with G.W. impersonator Ferrell, he bedeviled the Bush presidency on SNL, on Broadway, and online — but he's never really integrated them into his films beyond, say, the Red State turkey shoot of Talladega Nights. Taking white-collar criminals for villains, The Other Guys isn't laugh-killingly self-righteous — the Rage Against the Machine over the closing credits is pretty funny, actually — but its timely, villain-cluttered conspiracy doesn't make for a very buoyant adventure story, either.
Following the clues, The Other Guys turns more hectic than antic, and somebody didn't pack enough comedy for this long trip — the punchlines in the movie's second half are often callbacks to jokes you may not fondly remember from the first, until every gag is united with its mate. (Whatever script there was is credited to McKay and Chris Henchy, creators of the Funny or Die website with Ferrell.) If there were a computer program that automatically generated generic action scenes after you punch in participating actors' names — and there may well be! — the product would look like The Other Guys' shoot-'em-ups. Injections of zaniness (i.e., an enemy helicopter being pelted with golf balls; jokes about learning to drive from Grand Theft Auto) don't much lighten the impersonality.
Does providing a half-dozen solid laffs put The Other Guys ahead of this summer's grade curve? Afraid so. But comic cops are as old as the Keystone PD, and you need something special to compete with the homemade ingenuity, skewed Brit perspective, and steady command of tone of recent memory Hot Fuzz, not to speak of beating The Naked Gun to the draw.