If anyone could have saved HOT PURSUIT, it would have been Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. Aside from having scads of talent and audience appeal, they both have a keen understanding of their strengths as performers, yet they never quite cross the line into becoming caricatures of themselves. Here, the co-stars and co-producers have found for themselves roles that are tailor-made for them, but dropped them into a script that is thin, weak, and all over the place.
Witherspoon is Cooper, a tightly wound, over-eager, fanatically committed police officer relegated to a desk job when her zealousness caused a snafu that has become the stuff of urban legend. Far from carrying on the proud tradition of her cop father, she has tarnished the Cooper name, rendering it a verb meaning doing something really, really dumb. Say, like making a movie this bad.
But I digress.
Her redemption is at hand, though, courtesy of a witness and his bombshell of a wife who have agreed to testify against the local San Antonio drug lord. All Cooper has to do is escort the bombshell, Daniella (Vergara), to her courthouse date in Dallas, and her career will be back on track. Alas, a serious shootout, and an even more serious misunderstanding, recasts Cooper as a rogue cop, and Daniella as her hostage, forcing the two to flee the cops and the cartel as they make their frenetic way to Dallas.
There is, indeed, something funny in the visual contrast between the statuesque Vergara, oozing self-possessed contempt for the feisty policewoman in men’s shoes who speaks in quotes from the police manual, and that of the professional slow burn of the diminutive Witherspoon bursting with incredulous, and equally potent, contempt over her charge’s commitment to flashy clothes, stiletto heels and instinct for self-preservation. The script takes indifferent advantage of this, and becomes even more indifferent when, throwing them together on the lam, first giving Cooper the deductive skills of a kumquat, and the observational acuity of a billiard ball. Further, it gives us all painfully hackneyed tropes of discovering just how much they have underestimated each other, and then, of course, having them bond. What it doesn’t do is give any reason for them to actually bond so much as it sets us up for a steel-cage death match between the two, and I still feel cheated that all we received was a lackluster catfight foisted upon us instead. All that ill-will floats around until, miraculously, the cliché in play tenuously kicks in, as if it is slightly embarrassed to find itself included in this dreck.
As the ladies wreak havoc on their way to Dallas, the genuinely funny moments, involving both slapstick and some barbed dialogue delivered with the finesse needed to make it work, are few and far between. Mostly it’s a series of badly executed attempts at zaniness that have more than a whiff of desperation about them, such as using a potty mouth in front of senior citizens, or when the ladies pretend to be lesbians in a feeble attempt to divert the good ol’ boy whose truck they are stealing. Neither silly nor erotic, it’s a mechanical simulacrum of what the joke should be as if demonstrated by randomly groping rag dolls in the hands of an unskilled and tone-deaf puppeteer.
Fortunately, Witherspoon is called upon to Heimlich a beagle a few minutes later, which at least has the virtue of originality, and of Witherspoon’s deadpan panic, her voice getting squeakier as her efforts fail to have the desired effect. As for the interlude where they wear the deer skin and head in an attempt to elude their pursuers, the less said the better, even if one can’t help but be impressed by Vergara’s ability to recreate the sound of a snuffling ungulate.
HOT PURSUIT plays a mercifully short 87 minutes. And yet, it’s still not short enough to spare us or the ladies an irritatingly inept exercise in futility. Yes, we’ve all been Coopered.