Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson’s comedic chemistry save Central Intelligence from being a passable, yet forgettable, mainstream action/comedy.
Central Intelligence revolves around Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), a mild-mannered accountant who has grown increasingly frustrated with how his life turned out, having once been the king of his high school. Thanks to his twentieth high school reunion being just around the corner, Calvin soon winds up crossing paths again with “Bob Stone” (Dwayne Johnson): a formerly overweight outsider whom Calvin was kind to in high school, now grown up and having become a muscle-bound (but good-natured and quirky) badass – one all too eager to rekindle ties with his old “BFF”, Calvin. As it turns out, Bob is also a CIA agent who has gone rogue – and is now being hunted by the government.
Bob tells Calvin that he is actually deep under-cover – attempting to learn the identity of a traitor within the CIA (going by the codename of “The Black Badger”) who seeks to sell classified U.S. government information to terrorists. Despite his objections, Calvin is forced to join Bob’s mission and use his accounting knowledge to help crack the case, even as it remains unclear whether Bob is telling the truth… or whether he might even be “The Black Badger” himself.
Directed by Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and We’re the Millers helmsman Rawson Marshall Thurber, Central Intelligence is a serviceable action/comedy that’s more effective at showcasing Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s qualities as an onscreen comedic duo than anything else. Fortunately, the chemistry between the movie’s leads – coupled with a heavy-handed, but at the same time worthwhile anti-bullying message – makes up for the movie’s lack of substance in other departments. Johnson and Hart have already made plans to collaborate on more films (starting with the Jumanji reboot) and it’s easy to understand why, based on the friendly and funny screen dynamic they have with one another in Central Intelligence.
Hart, with Johnson added into the mix, is freed up to play an ordinary, if at the same time insecure, straight-man here and it makes for a nice change of pace from his previous comedy movie roles – though Hart tends to resort to his motor-mouthed comedian shtick, whenever Johnson isn’t onscreen. Fortunately, Hart and Johnson spend most of Central Intelligence playing off one another; this allows Thurber with co-screenwriters Ike Barinholtz and David Strassen (The Mindy Project) to construct a plot that’s largely a series of comedic scenarios and set pieces (some better than others, naturally) centered around Hart and Johnson’s dynamic duo. Central Intelligence‘s over-arching storyline is ultimately by the numbers, but at the same time it remains focused on its leads (as well as their respective individual arcs) throughout its running time.
It’s “The Rock” who, above all else, is responsible for making Central Intelligence better than the sum of its formulaic comedy plot beats and story twists/turns. “Bob Stone” (think John Candy meets Arnold Schwarzenegger) bears the strongest resemblance to Johnson’s real-life public persona of any role the wrestler-turned actor has tackled to date – giving rise to not only one of Johnson’s most charmingly off-beat and likable performances, but also one that is unexpectedly vulnerable in its own broadly comical way. Central Intelligence includes its fair share of self-reflexive (and self-effacing) jokes about “The Rock” too, most of which only work because Johnson is so willing to poke fun at himself. Bob’s emotional arc in the film is similarly satisfying in no small part thanks to Johnson bringing a sense of sincerity to the character and his journey.
Thurber is more experienced at directing comedy than action filmmaking, so it’s not surprising that Central Intelligence is better at using Johnson for comedic effect than creating impressive action sequences. Where Thurber and the film’s director of photography Barry Peterson (21 & 22 Jump Street) craft a number of solid visually-oriented jokes and sight gags based around Johnson and Hart’s vastly different physical sizes, they are less successful at assembling together noteworthy close-quarter fight scenes and shoot-outs – despite having someone who can handle their stunt work, like Johnson. Central Intelligence thus falls short at delivering the even balance of memorable comedy (one-liners, comical imagery) and captivating thrills that would’ve allowed it to be more successful with its efforts to riff on modern CIA/spy thriller tropes and popular installments in that genre (such as Jason Bourne).
Since Central Intelligence focuses primarily on Johnson and Hart’s antics, the remainder of the supporting cast – including Danielle Nicolet (Born Again Virgin) and Amy Ryan (Bridge of Spies) as Calvin’s wife Maggie and Bob’s CIA superior, Agent Pamela Harris, respectively – are relegated to playing more grounded characters for the film’s stars to bounce jokes off. They nevertheless play their roles in the movie well, as do other known actors who make either cameo appearances or play small, but still important, roles in the Central Intelligence storyline (their identities are best left unspoiled ahead of time, to maintain the surprise).
In the end, Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson’s comedic chemistry save Central Intelligence from being a passable, yet forgettable, mainstream action/comedy. The movie doesn’t set a high a bar for itself to clear (in terms of its storytelling quality and filmmaking craftsmanship), but it manages to clear that bar in style thanks to the performances of its leads and the parade of funny cameos that pass by along the way to the film’s conclusion. Central Intelligence doesn’t take advantage of Johnson’s natural screen presence as much as it could have, but the final movie result is still two hours of fun, light-hearted, summer escapism for those in the mood to watch Hart and Johnson crack jokes with one another (and also crack a few terrorist skulls along the way, too).
Central Intelligence is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 107 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language.
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