On the face of it, Central Intelligence is as standard as standard gets for a studio comedy: two seemingly unfitting actors are placed together for an Odd Couple-style caper, hilarity ensues. And despite being composed of disparate elements, Central Intelligence manages to hang together with enough laughs and genuine charm to gloss over the parts that don’t quite work.
It’s the chemistry between the two leads that carries the picture. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Kevin Hart play former fellow high school alum who are reunited 20 years after graduating. After meeting for a quick catch-up over some drinks, Hart’s bored accountant is dragged into Johnson’s mission as a CIA agent to stop a huge black market deal. Except, the rest of the CIA aren’t too keen on them completing the task, forcing the two to work together to see it through.
The dynamic between the pair is hardly novel: Hart plays Calvin Joyner, a high school sports star known as ‘The Golden Jet’ who graduates top of his class, while Johnson plays Bob Stone, a heavily bullied overweight student from the same graduating year. It’s the jock and the dork being forced to play together. But what makes it work is how the caricatures are outlined. Hart‘s Calvin is underwhelmed with how his life has turned out, while Stone has turned into, well, a socially gooey, Molly Ringwald-obsessed over-zealous version of The Rock. Calvin’s the reserved one, with Stone the outlandish trigger for many of the comedic situations. It’s a surprising setup given that the one of the two with the proven comedic chops, Hart, is left to making to sure the jokes land as opposed to manufacturing the situations.
Hart still thrives, though, and with gusto, making sure that the off-kilter tangents of Johnson’s Stone find their feet wherever possible. As can be seen from the trailers, Hart‘s role is to catch the setups from Johnson and turn them into slam dunks. It doesn’t always work, and on more than one occasion Johnson flounders a bit, some of the character quirks just not landing the way they should. Despite having worked hard on his abilities as an actor, his time in HBO comedy hit Ballers being put to work, Johnson is a little out of his depth here as the cartoony, eccentric engine that drives the laughter. Huge though his personality may be, it shrinks very quickly when a kneejerk gag goes amiss and he’s the only one enthusiastic about it.
Where he finds more success is when the film gets serious. Being the action man he is, bullets flying are where he looks strongest. But here he also shows a gentler side to his abilities. At the heart of Central Intelligence is a high school redemption story of the bully overcoming their bullies. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber – who shares a co-writing credit – revisits his work on 2004’s Dodgeball with that high school never ends, underdog mentality. The scenes where the movie plays up that aspect harder than the spy stuff are where it becomes the most endearing. Johnson’s character is a frail individual, scarred from years of torment at the hand of bullies. And when the film acknowledges that directly, it pays off. A business encounter with Jason Bateman, who’s more memorable here in five minutes than many of his other recent turns, produces possibly the highest point of the movie in what is easily the time where the mish-mash of themes works best. None of it is exactly Oscar-worthy, but it doesn’t stink up the place either and when it draws a response, that response is genuine.
And that’s what Central Intelligence does really well – maintain a happy medium. For every joke that doesn’t land, there’s a remorseless giggle right around the corner, for ever scene that sags there’s a jump in momentum right after. Sure, the mashing of a high school reunion comedy and a spy thriller doesn’t really work as well as the film thinks it does, but the mashing of the two talents on-screen makes up for it. There’s potential here that’s gone untapped and if all goes well, there’ll be a Central Intelligence 2 for all involved to have another run at it.