On one hand, it’s disarming and slightly disappointing that the dynamite-on-paper pairing of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence doesn’t amount to that great of an action film. It’s quite heartening and refreshing that it makes up for what it lacks in brawn by being genuine, sweet, and respectful towards its characters and the audience. It’s much more of an anti-bullying screed than a buddy picture fully of derring-do and wisecracks. Those quips and jabs are still present, but it’s in service of something a lot more heartfelt and genteel. It’s a buddy comedy about the nature of friendship instead of just two mismatched personalities butting heads.
Back when they were both a part of the Central High School class of 1996, Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) and Calvin Joyner (Hart) were vastly different people. Robbie was an overweight, good natured nerd humiliated so badly by callous classmates that he never returned during his senior year of high school. Calvin – an athletic and academic superstar voted “most likely to succeed” – was the one cool kid to ever show Robbie unconditional kindness and empathy in his time of need.
Twenty years later on the eve of their high school reunion, and Robbie, now going by the name Bob Stone, has returned into Calvin’s life. While Calvin finds himself stuck in a dead end accounting job and struggling in his marriage to his high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet), Bob has turned his life completely around. Bob’s just as socially awkward as ever – convinced that he’s best friends with Calvin to an unhealthy degree – but he has become, unbeknownst to his old friend, an agent for the CIA. Bob has ulterior motives for contacting Calvin again. He has gone somewhat rogue after a botched job, and he needs Calvin’s help to clear his name and stop the sale of defense satellite codes on the black market. Calvin wants no part of this, but Robbie has made his only friend such a huge part of his life that the milquetoast everyman has no option but to tag along.
Wisely, director and co-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers) places the most emphasis on the interplay between Johnson and Hart. Both men are charismatic performers capable of great feats of wit and physicality in equal measure, but Thurber deftly taps into both actors’ best hidden tricks. Hart can be a wonderful straight-man if the material is in his favour, which it totally is here. Meanwhile, the physically imposing Johnson can be at his most winsome when playing a hapless goof. Hart and Johnson are usually cast in the exact opposite of these roles, and for the majority of Central Intelligence they get to cut loose in ways most films don’t allow them to. Yes, Johnson gets to kick a lot of ass and Hart can still talk his way out of any situation, but Thurber and screenwriters Ike Barinholtz (best known as the guy who plays Seth Rogen’s inappropriate best friend in the Neighbors films) and David Stassen give the performers a wider range to play within.
The film’s funniest moment come from the performers unexpected skewing of their usual on screen personas, but it also makes the film’s inherent warmth shine through. It takes a lot to make a viewer believe that someone as imposing as Johnson could ever be bullied, and the actor’s wounded performance conveys that sentiment brilliantly. Similarly, Hart drops the smartass routine he does so well just enough to embody a man with a huge heart. Their kinship is well developed and unforced, and carries the film through to its concluding anti-bullying message. It’s sweet and emotionally engaging.
Too bad the same can’t be said for the espionage subplot, which is just a slapped together MacGuffin and obvious plot twist on which to hang the characters’ relationship. Even Calvin’s marriage feels like a perfunctory aside that doesn’t add or take away very much. Thurber isn’t really an action director, but he handles the film’s handful of set pieces well enough. It’s just a shame that the film’s major climactic action sequence doesn’t build to much of anything at all. Try as it might, the dénouement isn’t well written or thought out. If you think about the story logistics at all, the whole thing starts falling apart, but thankfully Johnson and Hart are always seconds away from distracting the audience by doing something funny, unexpected, sweet, inspiring, or touching. The CIA bits also get a nice supporting performance from Amy Ryan, as Bob’s old boss, who gets to show off her underrated knack for deadpan comedy.
In a summer where most of the big studio tentpole releases are sequels, remakes, or adaptations of bestsellers, it’s hard not to root for the success of Central Intelligence in spite of some faults and obvious aspirations of starting a new franchise. Despite still not being all that original – indebted mainly to Grosse Pointe Blank and 21 Jump Street – I’m on board for another adventure with Calvin and Robbie if they’re as effortlessly charming as this one is. It’s a crowd pleaser, and a worthy one at that.