Central Intelligence is not the type of movie you go to for a good story. A week after you see it you’ll have already forgotten the specifics of the plot – same ol’ same ol’ about a bad guy selling critical U.S. security codes to other bad guys. You might recall how you immediately guessed the identity of the villain and rolled your eyes an hour later when the main characters still hadn’t figured it out. More likely, though, you’ll look back on it and smile at the thought of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson cradling Kevin Hart like a baby, or you’ll laugh about that one moment when [surprise cameo] did that one thing to [not going to spoil].
And that is the general truth of the buddy comedy formula. Two actors with an agreeable chemistry are paired together, and a plot is built up around them, seemingly reverse-engineered to showcase each actor’s strengths. If the actors work well together then you’ll walk away having been entertained; if not, then you’re stuck with the type of bad movie which lives on through late night cable, causing people to ask aloud, “WTF? When did Dennis Rodman make a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme?”
Of course, the buddy comedy once reigned supreme, but over the past decade it has largely gone the way of the romantic comedy. Oddly, Kevin Hart is almost single-handedly bringing it back, starring in Ride Along 1 & 2 with Ice Cube, The Wedding Ringer with Josh Gad, Get Hard with Will Ferrell and now Central Intelligence with The Rock. In fact, this is his second buddy comedy of the year after Ride Along 2 in January. There, he was all nervous energy rubbing up against Ice Cube’s surly, tough guy persona. Central Intelligence does something different. In fact, in braver hands it could have turned out downright subversive because it flirts with an interesting idea: what if one half of the buddy duo is borderline insane?
The set-up is that Calvin Joyner (Hart) and Bob Stone (Johnson) went to high school together, at which time Joyner was the king of the school and Stone was so fat he had to secretly shower in the school’s wide open locker room. At a year-end prep rally, some bullies pulled a mean prank on Stone, and Joyner was the only one who showed him any trace of kindness.
Cut to 20 years later, Joyner is an accountant fighting with his successful wife (Danielle Nicolet) and trying to duck out of going to his high school reunion. He receives a Facebook friend request and subsequent invite to meet up for drinks with Stone, who now looks like, well, a former WWE wrestler. Joyner thinks of himself as a failure, but Stone still views him as the coolest guy in school who was once nice to him when no one else was. Hello, ego boost. They hit it off, and Joyner even agrees to help Stone with some accounting issue on an old payroll form, which turns out to be…
Oh, screw it. You’ve probably seen the trailer. Stone is actually a CIA agent, and he needs Joyner’s accounting expertise to track a black market purchase and ultimately help save the free world. However, a trio of CIA agents (led by Amy Ryan) hot on Stone’s trail swoop in and place Joyner in the middle. According to them, Stone IS the bad guy; according to Stone, he’s simply trying to stop the bad guy. Conflict ensues. Kevin Hart rambles and screams a lot. Danielle Nicolet floats in and out of the story.
Thankfully, Kevin Hart and The Rock work well together, coming off like two people overjoyed to be on screen together, likely encouraged by the director (Dodgeball and We’re the Millers‘ Rawson Marshall Thurber) to have as much fun with it as possible, as you can clearly see in the uniformly amusing closing credits outtakes. Hart convincingly pulls off his arc as a regular guy in need of a push to change his life for the better, and he’s granted plenty of comically exasperated moments to improv, although it’s odd how often he chooses to make jokes about his own ass.
Johnson, on the other hand, is doing something far more interesting, albeit not always successfully. His Bob Stone is meant to be a geek who sculpted his body to perfection but maintained his inner geekdom, as manifested here through a love for unicorns, fanny packs and 80s movies, especially Sixteen Candles. For Johnson, this means lots of dopey smiles and over-excited pronunciations of once-cool phrases like “What-what!?!”
However, we repeatedly see that he has the emotional maturity of a 17-year-old, even when he’s switching in and out of spy mode, at which point he’s a Schwarzenegger-esque killing machine. There’s a fine line between an adult who’s still haunted by high school bullying and a Cable Guy-like friendless psychopath. Due to its central mystery, Central Intelligence wants to walk both paths, but you’re left thinking, “Even if he’s not the bad guy, Stone’s still way too obsessed with Joyner.”
Of course, that’s a key component of the buddy comedy in the film. Joyner is semi-constantly freaking out and demanding explanations, and Stone almost always smiles and assumes Joyner is his best friend (e.g., if Joyner turns on Stone during a hostage scenario, Stone quickly assumes he’s just play-acting since Joyner used to be part of the drama club in high school). This doesn’t always work as well as the film thinks it does, but it is also a refreshingly different dynamic than usual from a buddy comedy. It plays into the notion that despite his bulky, intimidating frame The Rock is secretly just a big, lovable teddy bear underneath, which often comes through in interviews and on social media but rarely in his films. He has charisma for days, and I haven’t seen him play anything remotely similar to this role since Be Cool. However, the plot frequently invites you to think “How did someone this delusional rise so high in the CIA?”, mostly to its own detriment.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In effect, Central Intelligence gives us an emotionally scarred, but outwardly optimistic big guy paired with a small guy who shouts a lot, has lost his confidence and just wants things to go back to normal. The plot is threadbare, and resists any truly brave or surprising twists. By the end, the whole film turns into a well-intentioned, if somewhat muddled stance against bullying. However, often times the mere visual of The Rock standing next to Kevin Hart is amusing on its own, and the whole film comfortably gets by on their combined charisma. It’s usually damning to say that some of the best laughs are in the outtakes, but in this case that’s because seeing The Rock and Kevin Hart cut up together is always at least kind of funny.
BETTER NOT TO THINK ABOUT…
Anyone’s age. Kevin Hart, The Rock, Danielle Nicolet and [cameo spoiler alert] Jason Bateman are all meant to have been in the same high school class. Hart is 36, The Rock is 44, Nicolet is 42 and Jason Bateman is 47. As Hollywood actors, none of them actually look their age (I am particularly stunned to learn Nicolet is in her 40s), but as a group you could tell they absolutely did not graduate in the same year. Most importantly, the age difference between Hart and The Rock is noticeable, but you just go with it because the difference is not that extreme.
66% – “Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson make for well-matched comic foils, helping Central Intelligence overcome a script that coasts on their considerable chemistry.”