Partnerships and pairings are essential to cinema – they enable actors to play off one another, allowing for more naturalistic and endearing performances; as the old adage goes, “acting is reacting”. One of the finest and most enjoyable genres to embrace this is the “Buddy” film.
Popularised by its off-shoot, the more infamous “Buddy Cop” subgenre, this category of cinema placed the chemistry of two or more actors at the forefront. It’s a risk, and one that requires careful and considered casting. If the on-screen chemistry is faltering, and the actors are mismatched, it can sink a film – story, script, staging can all suffer if the leads do not click. But when they do? The chemistry can be effervescent, elevating a film. Sometimes, masterful chemistry can even forgive a poor film.
Yet almost all the finest “Buddy” movies rely on one key idea – that the pair be mismatched. Something about the formula of sparring, clashing characters who gradually become friends by being throw together has proved infallible.
“it was their contrast which made their slapstick work, with one being clumsy and one being brash”
This successful formula can, however, be seen across myriad genres. Dramatic films benefited especially, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. John Schlesinger’s 1969 masterpiece Midnight Cowboy is lead by a naive Jon Voight and a wily, cynical Dustin Hoffman. While the film is sweeping in its own regard, it would suffer greatly were its protagonists not so well matched. Or rather, so well not matched; the two are the antithesis of each other. Thrown together by poverty and a desire to ‘make it’ and ‘move on’, the combination of the child-like Voight and the thieving, reclusive Hoffman enable a vulnerability in each other and create a bittersweet, emotional friendship of quiet caring.
Similarly, Hal Ashby’s terrific The Last Detail (1971) regards two sailors taking a third across the United States to prison. Initially strangers to one another, the three bond across cities and trains, slowly uncovering their chequered pasts. An unpredictable Jack Nicholson steers the way, a volatile man with a yearning to be free, accompanied by his apprehensive peer and their prisoner – a young, inexperienced man with a timer hanging over him. In five days he’ll be in prison, and it’s across those five days that these three jarring personalities come together through drinking, smoking, laughing, and fighting – all leading to the most damning, deliberately unsatisfactory climax. By taking the time to develop proper pairings of characters, deeply affecting drama can be created, be it here or in films like Thelma and Louise – eponymously named after the leads to emphasise the importance of the relationships depicted within.
While these films are funny, they are not ostensibly comedies, and it’s in the comedy where we find many of the most famous “Buddy” films. These could arguably date back to the 1920s, with the everlasting pairing of Laurel and Hardy, starring in films sold around their being a duo. Once again, it was their contrast which made their slapstick work, with one being clumsy and one being brash; their appeal has lasted, as lovingly chronicled in this year’s sweet and sad Stan and Ollie. The idea of comic duos has never waned, evolving from Abbott and Costello to the more recent unique pairings of Harold and Kumar or Jay and Silent Bob; the latter pairs both revolving around stoners, one straight-laced and one crazy.
“Be it in truth or pastiche, the Buddy genre is one that has been crafted over decades”
Shane Black has made much of his career in the “Buddy” genre, helping to define and refine the “Buddy Cop” film through his biting noir pastiche, furiously funny and foul-mouthed dialogue, and comic violence. Born in Lethal Weapon, continued into his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and perfected in 2016’s The Nice Guys, all three films feature the same formula – a hard-nosed cop or private detective is reluctantly paired with a volatile or clumsy partner. Yet the sharp writing, pulpy action, and ingenious casting help them work. Oddly, the often counter-intuitive casting is part of the success – who would think to cast Val Kilmer or Russell Crowe in comedic roles? Black is responsible for many beloved cop-pairings, which all attempt to tackle action while never losing sight of comedy or character.
I feel that 21 (and 22) Jump Street, and the deeply underappreciated The Other Guys, are the three best comedy films of this century. Their success lies in the formula and, interestingly, their subversion of it; each are “Buddy Cop” action comedies that both embrace and mock the tropes that have come to determine the genre. Music, performance, and emotional moments are all parodied so lovingly that they become genuinely compelling – and so utterly enjoyable. Be it in truth or pastiche, the “Buddy” genre is one that has been crafted over decades; it has created not only some of the most memorable films, but some of the most memorable characters – because it is characters on whom the films’ success rely.