There's a nifty piece of advice for screenwriters trying to solve the apparently intractable problem of Strong Female Characters; I think it was originally said by Geena Davis. In a nutshell, the trick to writing a Strong Female Character is thus: write a Strong Male Character. Then give him a girl's name and make him a woman. Done.

Obviously, in the best of all possible worlds, there's a bit more nuance to it than that. But it has the benefit of being pithy and tremendously easy to put into practice (as an experiment, I once took a half-written screenplay I had lying around, and tried it out. Other than personal pronouns, I had to change a grand total of one line). And while it's demonstrably not literally what happened when screenwriter Katie Dippold cranked out The Heat, which was conceived as a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, that's the spirit animating the project. Here is a buddy cop movie, as beholden to the formulas as it's possible to be: this mirthless, by-the-books FBI agent and that loudmouthed Boston police officer butt heads over every possible issue, only to find themselves inseparable friends by the time they're done hacking through the hierarchy of the local drug cartel. Plus, they're women. Just like that.

So, it matters that they're women: there are gags and entire scenes that would never, ever play if the characters were two men. But it's heartening to see how much of Lethal Weapon and its ilk could be re-gendered without even the slightest effort, and without compromising its bona fides as a buddy cop movie first and above all. It's the kind of movie that has a little something for everybody without bragging about it, and while it is flawed (severely flawed, in some ways), the fact that it can take one of the most quintessentially masculine of film genres and make it about women without sacrificing any of its generic elements, well, that's something we need more of. And it was received that way as well, earning a nice spiffy pile at the box-office and serving as the trigger for the 2013 edition of the evergreen "what the hell is this bizarre market sector that flocks to movies with lady protagonists? Should we make more movies for those viewers?" theme that has dominated most of the 21st Century alongside "criticism is dying" and "where are the movies for grown-up audiences?" in the hearts and minds of lazy culture critics.

Like most buddy cop movies, The Heat thrives not on the basis of its negligible crime plot, which as mentioned involves a cocaine cartel (the details can be tweaked in a thousand insubstantial ways, but it's always a cocaine cartel), but on the interplay of its leads. Bullock is Sarah Ashburn, the bossy FBI agent angling for a big promotion and prone to caustic, patronising treatment of everyone she meets; McCarthy is Shanon Mullins, a burly, mean, abrasive cop with a tendency to lash out violently and spew curse words like it's going out of style. They're thrown together when Ashburn's boss (Demian Bichir) nudges her towards playing nice with the local PD rather than just shouting about jurisdictional issues and alienating everybody, and they clash instantly. Ashburn's pacific, condescending, squeaky-clean approach is no match for Mullins's "wave a gun around and terrify people into cooperating" mentality, and oh! how much Ashburn does hate the profane little Tasmanian devil she's partnered with. The feeling is, naturally mutual.

Tediously overfamiliar material, given ebullient life by the flawlessly-matched leads. Bullock and McCarthy, first and above all, fulfill the single greatest requirement of comedy teams: one is tall and lean, one is short and fat. That's three-quarters of the battle right there, and the actors carry it the rest of the way with their heavily contrasted line deliveries (Bullock glides across her words, McCarthy sputters improvisationally) and physical acting (Bullock holds herself straight and still, McCarthy is constantly moving and gesturing). Their timing is balletically matched: every volley of angry banter is as cleanly executed as the best vaudeville training every could have taught a comedian. It is the kind of tight, flawlessly choreographed interplay of two crisply-defined personalities that's enjoyable to watch completely without any reference to what the hell they're doing together; it's a crime movie here, but the Bullock/McCarthy show could be transplanted to any setting and retooled only minutely for equally terrific comic effect. Whole careers used to be founded on that principal.

So, basically, The Heat is a terrific little character comedy, and a definite step up from Bridesmaids, McCarthy's prior collaboration with director Paul Feig, which was funny as all hell when it wasn't lumpy and misshapen and stuck on scenes that could not find a natural ending. The Heat still halls all the hallmarks of comic filmmaking from 2005 onwards, with some rather confused editing that tries to shape untamed performances rather than funnel them into something clean and focused, and which abandons plot development for enormous stretches, leading to some puffiness and air: right in the middle of the rising action, there's a wandering sideplot involving Mullins's comically Boston-Irish family, which doesn't offer nearly enough strong gags to compensate for how bloated it leaves the film. Unless you maintain that Bullock being confused by people saying "nahk" when they mean "narc" is priceless top-tier comedy, in which case, um, okay. Rock on.

But anyway, the film has good momentum and it's not actively unpleasant to look at, which sets it well on the right side of the bell curve of modern American comedy.

There is, however, a whole other thing that the movie has going on, and it's certainly not limited to The Heat: it is the original sin of all cop comedies, in fact. Basically, it's pro-police brutality - explicitly so. The conflict between Ashburn and Mullins is precisely the conflict between "let's move slow, follow the rules, and respect the dignity of our witnesses and suspects" and "punch the fucker in the nuts, he'll talk". And there is not one occasion in the movie when Mullins's approach doesn't prove to be the right one, and Ashburn's concern for due process and not, for example, having an abusive episode recorded and thus rendering all their police work rendered inadmissible, is uniformly shown to be a byproduct of her stick-up-the-ass priggishness (though The Heat, like so many cop movies, appears to exist in a universe in which the judicial branch simply doesn't exist). This, again, happens in a lot of movies. But some movies at least seem to be aware that there might be a problem there, and The Heat is not one of those. It requires, for its comedy to function properly, that the audience never confront the possibility that Mullins's thuggish behavior is an actual social problem, and not just reflective of her playfully obnoxious personality. And so there is not so much as a tip of the head to the moral underpinnings of the film.

What a stark difference a year makes! In 2013, I'd have probably had the same concerns, but felt a bit schoolmarmish for it, because, I mean, it's just a comedy. In 2014, police brutality is seriously the least-funny thing imaginable. The Heat is pretty terrific in a lot of ways, and there's an easy argument to be made that it's the funniest major American film of its year purely on the merits of its joke construction and action. But there's some ugliness to it, a painful reminder as we reach the end of this tour of a century of Hollywood filmmaking, that one of the things Hollywood has always done best is to prevent you from thinking about the implications of the art you're consuming.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2013
-Alfonso Cuarón, Emmanuel Lubezki, and the best CGI team in recent years make space look awfully big, awfully terrifying, and awfully three-dimensional in Gravity
-A weird-ass fantasy version of 47 Ronin is lovingly ushered to theaters just in time for Christmas, because apparently just setting $150 million on fucking fire was too easy
-Veritable armies of girlchildren from an attachment to Disney's Frozen and refuse to "Let It Go", if you see what I did there. What I did is, I punned on the name of a popular and well-known song. I am clever.

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2013
-Edgar Wright blends mid-life crises and alien action in The World's End, capping of a trilogy of genre-comedy experiments
-A straight man directs two straight women in a kaleidoscopic study of the lesbian experience in Blue Is the Warmest Color
-Rithy Panh, survivor of the 1975-'79 killings in Cambodia, makes The Missing Picture, a filmed memoir of his experiences told in clay figurines