The bar for studio comedies has sunk so low that when one comes along and doesn’t bludgeon you with its ineptness, there’s a temptation to lavish praise on it. With that in mind, moviegoers looking for a quick fix of summer escapism could do worse than Central Intelligence, in which an enjoyably matched Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson star as odd-couple partners in CIA hijinks.
Fast, funny-ish and moderately entertaining, the film also is notable for what it spares us: There are no penis jokes; no gags involving farts, diarrhea or projectile vomit (not that I’m categorically opposed to those); no faces getting smashed with basketballs or other flying objects; no shouty kids, scolding wives or scantily clad sexpots; and only one brief slow-mo shot of the leads strutting toward the camera in smart suits as rap plays on the soundtrack. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers, Dodgeball) from a screenplay written with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (The Mindy Project), Central Intelligence demonstrates an above-average interest in story and character, and tries, if not always successfully, to craft real comic situations and action sequences. It’s been made with a certain level of polish and professionalism. And it capitalizes on the chemistry between Hart and Johnson, who convey what seems like genuine delight in each other’s company — something that gives this bromantic diversion a giddy kick.
Mindless summer fun.
I don’t want to overstate the case. The film doesn’t come close to the heady, high/low-brow brew of last summer’s exemplary espionage spoof, Spy. Nor does it deserve to be cited in the same breath as seminal buddy movies like 48 Hrs., or even the irresistible 21 Jump Street reboot. But in a season of particularly joyless tentpole offerings, Central Intelligence is, at least, a breezy watch and — whatever its shortcomings — doesn’t reek of the utter, can’t-be-bothered laziness that has become the damning hallmark of the Hollywood comedy.
The movie opens to the harmonies of En Vogue’s “My Lovin‘ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” — still glorious after all these years — as Robbie, a hefty Maryland high-schooler, busts a move in the locker-room shower. When he turns to the camera, we see that Robbie is actually Johnson, fattened up via CG trickery in the film’s most conspicuous bit of lowest-common-denominator laugh baiting. Before we can fully appreciate the inanity of this setup, Robbie is being dragged away by bullies and thrown, naked, into the middle of a school assembly. Luckily, his classmate Calvin (Hart), a popular and kind-hearted jock, is there to hand Robbie his jacket so he can cover up.
Cut to 20 years later, and Calvin’s golden-boy shine has faded. He’s happily married to his high-school sweetheart (a sharp if underused Danielle Nicolet), but he’s bored with his accounting job and hits peak frustration when he’s passed over for a promotion (or a “promosh,” as a smarmy co-worker played by the scene-stealing Ryan Hansen calls it). One day, Calvin reconnects with Robbie — who now goes by Bob — over Facebook and meets him for a drink. Lo and behold, the overweight sad sack has blossomed into an impressive specimen of beefcake (Johnson, sans fat effects), and still idolizes Calvin for that moment of kindness back in the day. After a few beers, some bonding (“I’m a hugger,” the goofily effusive Bob notes, clasping a helpless Calvin to his chiseled chest) and a bar brawl that reveals Bob’s formidable fighting skills, Bob cryptically tells Calvin that he needs accounting help.
But the next day, a CIA bigwig (the always welcome Amy Ryan) shows up on Calvin’s doorstep claiming that Bob is, in fact, a former agent gone rogue — and turned psycho — after killing his partner. A few beats later, Calvin and Bob are holed up in Calvin’s office, a law enforcement team on the other side of the door waiting to pounce. Their escape, with Bob wheeling a hysterical Calvin around in a mail bin while calmly dispensing with adversaries, is the movie’s highlight: an example of how Central Intelligence, at its best, weaves its action and comedy elements — the shattering of glass and crunch of bones punctuating the stars’ banter — into a high-velocity whole.
From there, the plot thickens with lots of talk about encryption codes and the “black badger” (the CIA agent Bob claims is the real villain), as well as extended cameos from Aaron Paul, Jason Bateman and a certain uncredited comedy queen. Thurber and the screenwriters have fun staging three different flashbacks of the same contested event, providing further evidence that the film is a notch more narratively alert than many others of its ilk.
That said, no one’s coming to Central Intelligence to see the director riff on Rashomon; they’re coming to see Johnson sausaged into Hart’s pajamas (don’t ask), the two stars staring dewily into each other’s eyes as part of a couples’ therapy intimacy exercise (again, don’t ask), or Johnson kicking butt while Hart fusses at his side like a Chihuahua nipping at the heels of a Rottweiler. I’m not sure the visual juxtaposition inherent in the central pairing is as amusing as the filmmakers think (Twins‘ Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito spoiled us for life in that department). And the “role reversal” the movie’s marketers have been pushing is a stretch: Calvin may register as the “straight man” on the page, but Hart plays him at his usual manic, endearingly irascible pitch; Bob is nerdy and neurotic on the surface, but put a gun in his hand and an enemy in his way and he’s every bit the cool, charismatic Johnson we’ve seen in HBO’s Ballers, San Andreas and other films over the years.
Still, Hart’s shtick feels more focused and finely tuned here than in the slapdash Ride Along movies or last year’s dismal The Wedding Ringer, and it’s a tribute to Johnson’s growing versatility that he’s credible as a man who could be either a cold-blooded killer or a lovable lug. The dialogue in Central Intelligence is hit-or-miss, but there are chuckle-worthy touches throughout, including a photo of a teenage Calvin as Hamlet in the school play and a recurring gag in which Ryan’s CIA agent nonchalantly tazes Hansen’s corporate kiss-ass (an example of the right way to wring giggles out of violence).
The film’s anti-bullying message is obvious but never drags on the pace or tone. Moreover, that message and the mindless laughs that Central Intelligence serves up along with it are things we could use now more than ever.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production companies: New Line Cinema, Bluegrass Films, Principato-Young Entertainment, Universal Pictures
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Writers: Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen and Rawson Marshall Thurber
Producers: Scott Stuber, Peter Principato, Paul Young
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Samuel J. Brown, Michael Disco, Steven Mnuchin, Ed Helms
Director of photography: Barry Peterson
Production designer: Stephen Lineweaver
Editors: Mike Sale, Brian Olds
Music: Theodore Shapiro, Ludwig Goransson
Casting: Lisa Beach and Sarah Katzman
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes