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Dustin Putman

Hot Pursuit  (2015)
2½ Stars
Directed by Anne Fletcher.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Kazinsky, Joaquin Cosio, Richard T. Jones, Mike Birbiglia, Jim Gaffigan, Vincent Laresca, Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Benny Nieves, Michael Ray Escamilla, Abigail James Witherspoon, Harley Graham, Bryce Romero.
2015 – 87 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, violence, language and some drug content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 6, 2015.
Within the comedy genre, there are countless subtypes: the socially conscious and politically charged; the observational and character-driven; the broad and physical, and the self-aware and referential. Pairing a southern-drawled Reese Witherspoon (2014's "Wild") with the ever-sultry Sofia Vergara (2014's "Chef"), "Hot Pursuit" falls squarely into another group still—that of the screwball and situational, an action-comedy that, were it not for all the cell phones in use, would be right at home in the 1980s. Cheerfully inconsequential yet undeniably entertaining throughout its no-nonsense, just-right 87 minutes, the film doesn't consistently hit the bullseye on all of its gags and spitfire barbs, but gains mileage via two disparate but copacetic lead actresses clearly having a ball. Watching them let loose together does a lot to smooth over the picture's rockier patches.

All her life, rigid, rule-following Texas police officer Rose Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) has dreamed of following in her law enforcement father's footsteps, but she's been saddled with desk duty ever since a misfortunate tasing snafu set one innocent bystander aflame. For Cooper's first assignment back in the field, she and Detective Jackson (Richard T. Jones) are tasked with transporting Felipe Riva (Vincent Laresca) and spicy wife Daniella (Sofia Vergara) to Dallas where he is to be a federal witness in the trial of mob boss Vicente Cortez (Joaquin Cosio). When two sets of gunmen invade the Rivas' mansion and Felipe and Jackson are gunned down, Cooper and Daniella go on the run. With bad guys and crooked cops closing in and the news media incorrectly fingering them as suspects in the murderous ambush, these two total opposites must evade capture as they figure out a way to clear their names.

The opening scene of "Hot Pursuit," tracking Cooper's childhood through her experiences riding in the back of her dad's police car, is an original way of economically building the backstory of its protagonist, but concluding on a punchline involving a transgendered person does not exactly inspire confidence. One or two other eyebrow-raising moments notwithstanding—as when Daniella calls Cooper "Officer Lesbian" for wearing sensible black shoes—the film quickly shifts into a pleasing, undemanding, all-in-fun groove. Director Anne Fletcher (2012's "The Guilt Trip") and screenwriters John Quaintance (2006's "Aquamarine") and David Feeney know how to tell their admittedly contrived story in a quick-paced fashion that devises plenty of misadventures and, in Witherspoon's case, disguises to get into while avoiding a pile-up of needless subplots. A recurring joke involving news reports increasingly exaggerating Cooper's diminutive height and Daniella's age is more amusing the longer it plays out. Other scenes provide solid—if not uproarious—laughs, including one bit with a deer hide and another where Cooper attempts to flirt her way onto what she thinks is a "Cowboy Noiz" male revue tour bus. A much-publicized girl-on-girl kiss starts off feeling like a cheap, almost square throwaway, but Fletcher finds a way to turn it on its head and make the situation fresh.

Reese Witherspoon has too long been underrated as a comedic performer (her one-of-a-kind work in 1999's "Election" and 2001's "Legally Blonde" is nothing short of genius). Perhaps the reason she has never quite received her proper due on this front is because she can so seamlessly and believably transition to darker, more serious parts as with her recent Oscar-nominated turn playing recovering drug addict Cheryl Strayed in "Wild." The actor in that gritty picture doesn't at all, in any way beyond physical similarities, resemble the one in "Hot Pursuit"—a testament to her wide-ranging talents. As the overachieving, tomboyish Officer Rose Cooper, Witherspoon irresistibly unleashes a full-blown Deep South dialect and a sincere, by-the-book demeanor. She's all the more endearing and humorous precisely because she doesn't realize it.

Due in part to her distinctive Colombian accent, Sofia Vergara has received criticism in the past for playing the same character over and over. This is a narrow-minded, borderline-racist point of view. While the energetic, fast-talking Daniella sounds a whole lot like Gloria Pritchett from TV's "Modern Family," the part itself is very different. Beneath the sarcastic one-liners, Vergara brings a tough, world-weary edginess to Daniella, a woman who has been around the block a few times and isn't above eye-for-an-eye justice. She and Witherspoon are terrific bouncing off one another, tart comic foils whose relationship develops in unexpected and complicated ways and doesn't just magically transform them into best friends. In a film that puts male love interests on the backburner to concentrate for a change on female characters, one still briefly materializes when Cooper and Daniella cross paths with Randy (Robert Kazinsky), a wrongly accused ex-con who empathizes with their plight and offers to help them. Underwritten though Randy is, Kazinsky (2013's "Pacific Rim") has a magnetic way about him and his brief one-on-one interactions with Witherspoon spark with solid chemistry.

There is the sneaking suspicion during "Hot Pursuit" that it could have been better. The script is tight, but could be sharper. There is an occasional tendency to go for the easy and obvious when it should be aiming higher than that. What the picture gets right, however, is its sheer lack of pretension. All involved set out to make an hour-and-a-half romp that embraces the conventions inherent to its concept and seeks to show mainstream audiences a good time. Save for an almost unsettlingly timely plot point involving shady police officers, there is little social relevance in what is meant to be a story of hijinks and adventure between two women brought together by extreme circumstance who ultimately learn to respect and understand each other (it helps that Cooper is fluent in Spanish). "Hot Pursuit" is destined for an unfair critical drubbing. While it is okay to wish for more from a movie with potential, one also needs to take into account what the intentions of its makers were, and how it will be seen in years to come. Had this film come out in 1986, it would be, in 2015, a minor but well-liked cable mainstay that people, filled with nostalgia, cannot help but watch every time they stumble upon it while channel-surfing. That's a specific niche anyone should count themselves as lucky to have achieved.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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