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The buddy cop movie most likely reached its peak with its innovate origins in the improbably influential pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, an action comedy that was sharply-written but successful because of its supremely defined and well-crafted characters. From there, a long, seemingly endless parade of look-a-likes have come to theaters, some good, some creative, some in parody, and some just forgettable. With Ride Along, there is no denying the Lethal Weapon inspirations, and it does have its moments, but it’s not enough to elevate this beyond the ruts of the genre.
The story sees Ben Barber (Kevin Hart), a high school security guard who barely holds his own on the playground, getting admission to enter the Atlanta City Police Academy. He’s dating the lovely Angela Payton (Tika Sumpter) and he wants her hand in marriage but there’s one snag. Angela has a big brother. He’s a cop named James Payton (Ice Cube), an undercover detective, and he isn’t too impressed with little Ben Barber. Ben wants James to give his blessing, but James wants Ben to prove himself worthy, and to do so, invites the jumpy new recruit on a ride along, where he spends the day with real police in real situations. Or so he thinks.
Directed by Tim Story, Ride Along doesn’t try all that hard to be anything but a stage for the talented standup comedian Hart to razzle-dazzle with his hectic, rapid-fire brand of humor, which he fires on all cylinders here throughout. A kind of Training Day spoof with Ice Cube snarling and threatening his way through King Kong ain’t got nothing on him sort of pace (and even driving a suped-up muscle car), the movie gleefully rolls on with some great work by the supporting cast, including Sumpter, who should have had much more screen time and the very funny Jay Pharoh from SNL who gets a few good moments along the hurricane path that is Hart.
Surprisingly, Ice Cube and Hart make for a good on-screen team. While the physically disparities of Hart and Dwayne Johnson were the gimmick in Hart’s other buddy comedy Central Intelligence, it is the personalities of Cube and Hart that make for the conflicts in Ride Along. Cube is an intimidating presence but he’s also a gifted funny man and understands the value of the straight man, giving Hart all the room to be explosively funny but making every joke work better because he knows best how to play into them. That’s an under-appreciated gift for any co-star expected to bring the laughs.
There is one moment, for example, that showcases this well. An early scene sees Payton telling dispatch to give them the “1-26’s,” which Ben thinks is real police situations. Of course it’s not. Ben gets a taste of what he thinks is the horrific lifestyle of a cop, though does his best to keep up with Payton, but ends up needing James’ help when he tries to subdue a crazy man at a market. And that’s just one of a few incidents where he’s practically been abused by crazy people. Stressed by the events, he decides to call it a shift and so rings Angela, who in conversation, tells him about the jokes James likes to play on rookies, including 1-26’s, where his friends pose as disturbed people in order to get a laugh at a newbie’s expense. Fueled by this, and not telling James he knows, they go back out onto the streets.
Not long after, they respond to a disturbance at a strip-club, where Ben is confident that he’s being played once again for a fool. James asks him to go outside and radio for backup but Ben has other ideas and instead walks straight across the dance floor (flirting a bit with a buxom dancer) toward the suspects who have taken half-naked girls as their hostages. Both suspects, who are actually very real and very dangerous thugs, point their pistols at Ben. Ben, still thinking he’s part of a hoax, taunts the killers, daring them to fire. It’s manic.
What happens next, I’ll leave you to discover, but what works well about this moment is the payoff of one joke that leads to the setup and discovery of another. Hart holds reign over the scene, calling back to Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon with a dash of Eddie Murphy in 48 hrs. The tension is set as we know the gunmen are real and the hostages in danger, and while naturally, we don’t think Ben is actually going to get shot, the lengths he goes to in pushing them to act is funny and a little nerve-wracking. It’s a well-directed and well-staged moment that unlike many of the site gags and jokes within the film is also well-earned.
Ride Along is really just a vehicle to put the kinetic, steam-rolling energy of Hart to use, and admittedly, it can be a bit exhausting, even though he is undeniably fun to watch. An easy movie to like, it is also not too challenging and ultimately wafer thin. The premise is obvious and stretched to its breaking point, but the performances are a standout, making this one of those movies impossible to turn off.