If, like the writers of The Other Guys, you have seen and enjoyed scores of Hollywood action flicks featuring pairs of mismatched cops, you will probably find this movie a rich source of laughs and references. If you are not a fan of the genre that it lovingly and often cleverly spoofs, you are less likely to appreciate its virtues.
Directed by Adam McKay and starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, The Other Guys begins as straightforward parody then evolves into something more unpredictable and bizarre. Its jokes do not always work but when they do, they are very funny indeed.
It opens with NYPD supercops Danson (Samuel L Jackson) and Highsmith (Wayne Johnson) doing a spectacular amount of property damage as they chase and capture a carload of drug dealers. After being rewarded with medals, adulatory interviews and celebrity dates, they patronisingly tell their colleagues back at the station that they could not lead such exciting, glamorous lives without the help of those who do all the boring work behind the scenes - the other guys. Among those other guys are desk-bound detectives Gamble (Ferrell) and Holtz (Wahlberg).
However, a bizarre incident takes Danson and Highsmith off the streets, and Gamble and Holtz find themselves in the running as their replacements when Gamble stumbles on a minor violation by a company owned by David Ershon, a Madoff-like businessman played by Steve Coogan (channeling David Frost).
Holtz hates Gamble because the latter truly prefers doing paperwork to catching criminals. It is a funny gag in the context of the NYPD, but if course uncomfortably close to the reality of policing in Britain, where whole forces are apparently so desperate to avoid real police work that they outsource beat patrols to tragicomically ineffective "police community support officers".
Gamble is a genuine nerd, unaware that his red Prius is an object of mockery. He is also unaware that his wife, (Eva Mendes) is a stunner. To Holtz's confusion, beautiful women - including Brooke Shields playing herself in a lightning cameo - are powerfully drawn to Gamble, and one of the ways that The Other Guys is superior to most spoofs is the low-key way it acknowledges and makes fun of the Hollywood habit of giving male characters unrealistically gorgeous wives and girlfriends.
While Gamble is optimistic and naïve, his partner is an angry tough placed on desk duty because he mistakenly shot the star player of the Yankees. Frustrated, aggressive but insecure, Holtz sees effeminacy everywhere, especially in his partner's behaviour. He also has some unlikely talents developed just to make fun of "queers".
In a pleasingly understated way, the film plays around with an array of cop flick conventions: the rough policeman with the cultured, bourgeois girlfriend; the officer tormented by a dark episode in his past, etc. There are some inspired sequences, including a whispering fight at a police funeral, a spoof John Woo shoot-out and a hilarious drinking montage.
Ferrell's film career has been disappointing given his success on Saturday Night Live - on many ocassions he has gone too far in the direction of hysteria. He shows a new restraint and sweetness here and it makes him more appealing. Moreover, in Wahlberg he has finally found a worthy straight-man.
One of the glories of this raucous, antic film is its casting. It is good to see Michael Keaton back on the screen and on fine form as the heroes' boss, and Eva Mendes shows in a few brief scenes that she is not just gorgeous but a fine comedienne. There are also cameos by the likes of Anne Heche and the writer Malachy McCourt (in a scene skewering lugubrious Irish-American folk singing) and a narration by rapper Ice T.
Some jokes fall flat, a couple are flogged to death and a credit sequence blasting Wall Street excess seems gratuitous and hypocritical. But The Other Guys is still much wittier than the recent crop of film spoofs and the best comedy of the year so far.