The opening moments of Hot Pursuit are so scarily good that for about two minutes I thought I might be in the presence of a masterpiece. In these scenes, through a quick succession of cuts, we see a young girl growing up in the back of her father’s cop car, playing with handcuffs and a radar gun, learning about police scanner codes, even getting a ride to her prom. The years flash by, and then one day, Dad’s not there. Instead, the girl hears some angry yelling outside and then anxiously reaches for the radio, calling in for backup. Daddy’s gone. Fade out.
The movie should have ended right there.
The best parts of Hot Pursuit hearken back to that opening. When we see that girl, Rose Cooper, again, she’s all grown up and played by Reese Witherspoon, as a sheltered, by-the-book cop eager to do right but so often doing wrong. We learn that she got demoted after she Tased — and accidentally set fire to — the mayor’s son, because she heard him call "shotgun" while getting in a car. Apparently, Cooper has never heard anyone yell "shotgun" before – but then we realize it’s because she always had the backseat in her dad’s police car. It’s a touching little resonance that the film, much to its credit, downplays.
But the rest of Hot Pursuit is a mixture of mild pleasures and deep disappointments. We follow Cooper as she tries to transport a witness, Daniella Riva (Sofía Vergara), the pampered wife of a drug lord, to the trial of a brutal, murderous kingpin (Joaquín Cosío). The two women wind up as fugitives, framed by a couple of crooked cops in the murder of Daniella’s husband and a police detective. One imagines this being pitched as a cross between The Heat and Midnight Run, but it has none of the outrageousness of the former or the freewheeling sense of fun of the latter. Or for that matter originality or edge: Most of the jokes center on the fact that Cooper is incompetent and short, and that Daniella is loud, spoiled and Hispanic.
One wonders if it’s all so tepid by design because the film tries to walk a very fine line here: If these gags were any milder, they’d fail to qualify as jokes; if they went further, they’d probably be offensive. The soft-touch humor might have worked if the film had made up for it with pacing and energy: The Heat was a mess as a piece of storytelling, but its deranged fits of profanity and lunacy made up for it. Here, the generally drab pacing comes as a bit of a shock, too, since director Anne Fletcher has done solid work on that front in the past: She directed the winning rom-coms The Proposal and 27 Dresses, as well as the first Step Up. She’s also a brilliant choreographer, with titles like Boogie Nights, Bring It On, and Hairspray to her credit. Blocking, timing, movement — these are supposed to be her forte.
Still, it’s nice to see Witherspoon working in comedy again, and she and Vergara have decent chemistry together. The former’s spark-plug charisma works well next to the latter’s coltish, bubbly flightiness, even if the gags and setpieces themselves feel lifeless. You could easily imagine these two in a sharper, edgier comedy. Maybe, if Hot Pursuit is a hit, the filmmakers can take a mulligan and reunite them for a faster, funnier sequel. Now that would be original.