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There’s no denying the unchartable charisma of both Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart and together their a perfect combination of action and comedy that propels the plot of Central Intelligence at mach speeds. In the history of mis-matched partnerships in movies, Johnson and Hart (of which Hart already has some experience with Ice Cube in the Ride Along series) may not be remembered as the greatest, but do make a bid to get on the list. But putting them together doesn’t mean it all works.
Calvin Joyner (Hart) starts the story in 1996 as the most popular student in school, a student so adored the principal wants him to be his son. On the last student rally of his senior year, he’s addressing the entire student body, encouraging them to seek their dreams when the doors swings open and a bullied fat kid is tossed naked into the gym, sliding to a stop at Joyner’s feet. With the crowd erupting into hysteria, Joyner quickly gives him his letter jacket. The boy runs off and is never heard from again.
Twenty years later, Joyner has not lived up to his potential, now a disillusioned accountant who married his school sweetheart. On the eve of the class reunion, Joyner receives a friend request from a man named Bob Stone. He accepts, and learns that he’s actually Bob Weirdicht, the boy from high school. He wants to meet so Joyner agrees and instead of the big man he expects to find, he’s a muscle-bound mountain of a man with a unicorn T-shirt and a fanny pack. They drink a bit, remember the old times and then Bob asks for an accounting favor. Not long after, Joyner is embroiled in an espionage plot involving CIA secrets and a terrorist known as the Black Badger.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, the mix of high action and slapstick-ish comedy is nothing new and is pretty standard for the genre, but is levied by the characters and performances. Hart brings his usual frantic, high-energy, rapid-fire persona, but playing opposite the level-headed, hyper-positive Johnson, the chemistry between them is practically kinetic. While its start is (like most of these films) the strongest, there is a surprising emotional resonance that doesn’t quite feel as contrived at is could. With bullying becoming an internationally recognized crisis, there’s a fine line here that needs to be walked, and while the message is well-delivered and at times deftly handled, there is still the feeling that a man that looks like The Rock is somehow better than the one he was in his youth. Yes, hard work, dedication, and a necessity to accept who you are all touched on, but in the end, literally, he is glorified on stage for his physique. There’s also the question of how one particular bit of bullying is answered for. Violence tends to be the go-to answer for Hollywood and knocking out the bully might give the audience a ‘he got his comeuppance’ lift (even Superman did it), but it feels like a missed opportunity. It’s also lazy. And worse, unnecessary as that side of the story does nothing for the plot other then give the also unnecessary ending a literal punch.
A film like this requires a certain separation from logic, as many of the film’s complicated hi-jinks could be solved, or at least avoided, by Joyner simply taking ten seconds to call the police to help himself. But the movie isn’t about logic, and wants to be about trust and friendship. The conceit is that Stone is obsessed with Joyner, believing him to be his best friend since the day he gave him his jacket, but since Joyner hasn’t heard a word from Stone in twenty years, it kind of loses its weight. Stone spends the entirety of the film convinced that Calvin is a great man and will always come through, even in the middle of a gun fight. Of course, for 90 percent of the film we aren’t supposed to know if Stone is really good or really bad as his fellow CIA members claim he is (there’s even an image of Stone at one point that is so blatantly meant to steer the audience toward an answer that it does nothing but make eyes roll rather than be effective).
The real mistake here though is not the cast but whom each plays. When I first saw the trailer for this a few months back, I saw right away where the problem was going to lie. With Johnson already well-established as an action movie star, who already has a recurring role as government agent in the Fast and Furious films, it seemed the right thing to do in making this a real comedy would be to switch them here. Imagine Johnson as the bored accountant and Hart as the agent and you can sense straight away the potential. Why not play into expectations and reverse them? That’s not to say Hart and Johnson aren’t good. In a few scenes they find the mark, especially Johnson who has a sublime sense of timing, but both are stifled by their past and miss a great chance to take their comedy to the next level.
Central Intelligence is a mediocre film with stellar leads but wastes the others. The great Amy Ryan has a bit part as the obvious other agent who is meant to appear bad and Danielle Nicolet is wasted as Joyner’s wife. But for some easy laughs and a breezy afternoon rental, it serves is purpose. It would be good to see Hart and Johnson get together again in a different project.
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Writers: Ike Barinholtz (screenplay), David Stassen (screenplay)
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Danielle Nicolet, Amy Ryan