There’s been a major resurgence in recent years of the ‘buddy comedy’ subgenre; you know, the ones where two random actors are stuck together, given guns and asked to save the town/country/world. Likely sparked by the surprise success of 21 Jump Street (because it definitely wasn’t R.I.P.D that did it), these types of movies are just a few notches below superhero movies in terms of frequency. The year’s halfway finished and we’ve already gotten Ride Along 2, The Brothers Grimsby, Keanu and The Nice Guys. Disney even got in on the action with Zootopia, maybe the purest buddy comedy of 2016.
These types of movies are an easy prospect for the big studios from a financial perspective; what’s a safer bet than taking two popular actors and mashing them together in something that’s got both action and humor? But that thinking seems to have gotten the best of Central Intelligence, a decently funny movie that was clearly given the green light based solely on the strength of its two leads with much less attention given to narrative, dialogue or production values. Sure, the film gets a lot of mileage out of its pairing of Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, two wildly charismatic real-life personas who combine to form a juggernaut of likability. But their genuine, energetic chemistry is undermined significantly, since everything else feels like a breathless attempt to find something interesting for them to do.
The movie begins in 1996 at a high school — a kind of sad, faint echo towards 21 Jump Street, the movie that the filmmakers seem most interested in/worried about replicating the success of. In a surprise that I’m sure was only surprising to me as someone who managed to avoid seeing a single trailer or reading a single line of plot online, The Rock’s character Bob Stone begins as a fat, awkward, bullied weirdo (the CGI fat suit does not leave a good first impression, by the way), while Hart’s Calvin is the well-liked, popular Prom King, and the one guy who is kind to Bob. Flash forward to adulthood and Calvin’s a married accountant whose life peaked in the opening scene. As their high school reunion approaches, Calvin is contacted by Stone and decides to meet up with the guy, only to find that he’s no longer fat (in fact, he’s the fucking Rock), though he‘s still an awkward weirdo. Oh, he Bob also gets Calvin dragged into an aggressively generic thriller plot involving the CIA and spy satellites. Can’t forget that stuff…
The unexpectedly hilarious, against-type performance from The Rock as a giant, sexy tank of a man who, on a mental level, is still an annoying, slightly creepy but ultimately lovable dork, provides a novelty you just can’t get from similar comedies. The way in which Bob plays off of straight man Calvin and his nonstop horrified looks (nobody can express exasperation quite like Hart) is comedy gold. Johnson doesn’t always nail the comedic delivery (give him time, guys, he’s new to this), but this is one of those lucky roles where some bad acting actually helps the performance. His sometimes stilted line delivery still kind of works since Bob’s supposed to be an awkward, not-quite-there dude in the first place.
When it comes to the writing between the two main characters, Central Intelligence is often laugh-out-loud funny, with some fantastic, out of left field one-liners. It isn’t nearly as quotable as 21 Jump Street, or even director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s popular Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, but Thurber still knows how to deliver simple standalone jokes that kept me chuckling throughout. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the cameos are fantastic, a class act compared to the blatant cameo abuse of films like Zoolander 2, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and most other modern comedies. By not overstuffing the screen with familiar faces and putting actual thought into who they cast these few smaller roles, Central Intelligence gets it totally right. The movie also reminds us how great an old-fashioned blooper reel at the end of a movie can be.
From a purely comedic point of view, there should be plenty to enjoy for most audiences, as long as you aren’t a Hart hater. I only say ‘Hart hater’ because I assume nobody dislikes The Rock. The Rock could play an actual rock and it’d get like seven sequels. Easily. And while the laughs are front an center, there’s also a legitimate sweetness to some of the movie’s quieter moments between the two leads, as they look back on how they’ve changed since high school and how they’re still the same in pivotal ways, for better or worse. There isn’t much in the way of emotional catharsis by the end, but for a movie like this, just feeling something for these characters is a good sign.
That said, everything outside of Bob and Calvin’s interactions are unremarkable at best. Or just plain bad. Scenes between Calvin and his wife Maggie (TV actress Danielle Nicolet) are painful, a combination of the lack of chemistry between them and the screenwriters’ pitiful excuse for expository dialogue (there were three screenwriters on this project – really no excuses, guys). Then you’ve got the details of this satellite-related CIA ‘steal the codes’ plot that the script veers in to, which is overly simplistic at its core but told in a way that makes it seem convoluted. It’s funny that Calvin never really seems to grasp exactly what’s going on or why he should care about Bob’s mission, but it would have been nice if I had been spared from wondering the same things. In reality, the poor excuse for a narrative is in turn a poor excuse to stuff in bland gunfights, fistfights and double crosses. It’s too bad then that the action itself is blandly shot, often too choppy to satisfy on a visceral level.
While the action doesn’t quite pan out and the script is atrocious, the focus given to the pair’s relationship and their growth as individuals was strong enough to carry me through the story with minimal drag. I can’t state enough how weird and rewarding it is to see The Rock in an abnormal role and really having a lot of palpable fun with it, stealing the entire venture away from Hart, the guy who’s usually the crazy comedic relief. Johnson’s performance alone is enough to recommend the movie to anyone who is even sort of a fan of these two actors. It’s just a shame that the movie built around these talented men isn’t quite worthy of their magnetic presence.
Score: 3 out of 5