Central Intelligence’s tagline – “It takes a little Hart and a big Johnson” – is one of those rare constructions in entertainment advertising, jokes so stupid they come out the other side clever. In this way, it’s the ideal teaser for a film that marries its pro-forma buddy-comedy structure to an admirable willingness to stick with the joke until the end, trusting in its leads to carry the day.
The same can’t be said of the attempts Central Intelligence makes at more emotive characterization, though you can feel it giving it a go there, too.
Frankly, though, most audiences aren’t coming to a Kevin Hart / Dwayne Johnson action comedy for profound reflections on the vagaries of life as we transition from adolescence to adulthood, and they’ll be too busy laughing too much of the time to notice or care if the film falls short on that score.
Hart plays Calvin Joyner, once a comically over-achieving high school success story now reduced to something of a sad-sack life as a “forensic accountant” (an actual but rarely cinematically-invoked job title that the film rather curiously treats as commonplace).
In a departure from his usual motor-mouthed shtick, post-high school Hart, married to his sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet, perfectly acceptable but given almost nothing to do) and living in the Maryland suburbs, ably conveys a sense of lost promise. Good as he may be in his boring line of work, this was not, he feels, what his classmates had in mind when they voted him Most Likely To Succeed.
A sudden disruption comes when, on the eve of his 20th high school reunion, he accepts the Facebook Friend Request of one “Bob Stone”. Bob, it turns out, was the bullied fat kid Joyner once extended some meager kindness to when no one else would. Bob’s idolized him ever since.
Now grown into an Adonis (or, as the film cheekily suggests, a “Hercules”) in the form of Dwayne Johnson, Bob invites Calvin out on the town. Almost immediately, events indicate Bob might know, and be, more than he lets on. Without further ado, director Rawson Marshall Thurber launches us into an action film.
Why does Bob react to danger like some sort of Jason Bourne? Why did he bring Hart along? As things escalate, we are invited to wonder about the significance of Amy Ryan’s Agent Pamela Harris, hot in pursuit. There are chases and explosions and questions about Bob’s true motives. It all has to do, we learn, with codes to satellites. Or something.
None of this matters. Some of the action set-pieces are actually pretty fun and engaging, but Central Intelligence is first and foremost concerned with the comic physical difference between its two leads, and a sly reversal of expectation.
The hulking Johnson, getting the better end of the deal and the best lines, is all smiles and unicorn t-shirts (“the most lethal animal on the planet,” he deadpans), both a killing machine and a perpetually star-struck teenager who quotes Sixteen Candles but rips throats like Patrick Swayze in Road House.
Hart, the man he’s absurdly in thrall to, is a terrified and milquetoast middle-manager who’s long forgotten his glory days as “The Golden Jet,” the guy who could do back-flips on command and also win the drama award for his performance in Hamlet.
Those flip-sides to their personae – Johnson hilariously sensitive, Hart defeated and resigned, both sheltering disappointments in who they were and who they’ve become – never get the dramatic mileage they might have. They’re played for laughs, but the film hints at another, sadder reading underneath. It’s enough to make you wonder what Central Intelligence might’ve been with a softer touch.
No matter. The hijinks compound and the drama is shelved; bullets and jokes fly; our unlikely heroes get in and out of trouble. Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors working today, never better than when he’s undermining the presumptions of his own physique. (It’s no accident that Pain & Gain is the only Michael Bay film worth remembering.) By dialing it down, Kevin Hart rolls out some pitch-perfect timing, perhaps a surprise to those who assume he only has one register.
Central Intelligence also boasts wall-to-wall 90s jams that had this critic’s audience literally dancing. It feels a little dickish to point out the scripting flaws when all evidence indicates a clear crowd-pleaser. (More dickish: to point out that while Kevin Hart might’ve been part of the Class of ’96, as posited, Dwayne Johnson almost certainly was not, no matter how much make-up was applied.)
Still, we end up with an often inspired comedy rooted in one hugely winning performance, an occasionally diverting action movie, and a failed drama that abandons its own premise. You could do a whole lot worse. And there’s always dancing in the aisles to Biggie if you get bored.