It plays on a familiar trope–the mismatched odd couple. It features two of the most popular stars on the planet–comedian Kevin Hart and franchise savior Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And it’s directed by the guy who gave us Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and We’re The Millers. So you’d assume that with all those things going for it, Central Intelligence would be one of the funniest films ever. Instead, there are laughs here and there, but the plot keeps getting in the way of the humor.
That’s because Central Intelligence wants to have its hysterics and it’s action thriller storyline too. It can’t really mesh them both together successfully. Hart is in full bore motor-mouthed mode, making his former BMOC turned mild mannered accountant into a jittery joyful jabberbox. Yes, it’s his typical scour the setting for a punchline routine, but when he makes it work, it does. Similarly, Johnson show his signature smile, imposing physique and the self-deprecating superhero that he’s become known for.
The two actors have great chemistry. The story they’re in doesn’t. That’s the biggest issue with Central Intelligence. It’s not trying to be important or meaningful. It’s not asking anyone in the cast to stretch beyond their comfort zone. No, after an engaging opening and solid second act, the finale finds a way to turn our happiness into a lack of hope. Siskel and Ebert used to complain about ’80s buddy comedies that de-evolved into pointless car chases and shoot ’em ups. You get the idea.
In our story, Hart is Calvin Joyner, the most popular kid in high school. He comes to the defense of bullied Robbie Stone (Johnson in a wonderful CG fat suit) and a bond is formed. Later, when Joyner is a bored, button down drone, his former “friend” looks him up. He needs his computer skills to help save the world. He’s in the CIA, you see. But then Joyner is confronted by Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan) and told the…truth? Stone has gone rogue and she wants help bringing him in. A cacophony of clashing plot conceits result.
Let’s face it–your love of Johnson and Hart, either together or separately, will dictate how much you tolerate what Central Intelligence it trying to do. It’s hard not to like them. Johnson is especially good at masking his inner adolescent geek (Stone love unicorns and his favorite film is Sixteen Candles) with his jacked body bigness. He can make himself seem very small when he needs to. Hart, on the other hand, needs to learn that, often, less is more. Sure, his insane ramblings deliver a clever line or two, but his stream of consciousness adlibbing can get in the way sometimes.
The rest of the movie is a MacGuffin, a former spy selling satellite secrets that makes little sense and goes nowhere. It’s just the clothesline upon which all the other antics are hung. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber shows some deftness when it comes to both the laughs and the stunts, but he can’t quite keep the movie from falling apart at times. The opening, with the bullying issue front and center, is where most of the meaning lies, but a later call back can’t quite bring the comic closure we expect. If comedy is all timing, Central Intelligence‘s is a bit off. If all action is set-up and delivery, there’s a few unnecessary pauses there as well.
In the end, however, it’s all about Johnson and Hart. They are the reason audiences will care, and come away happy, with this otherwise middling movie. As cinematic salesmen, they do a fantastic job of pawning off this passable buddy comedy as a ‘don’t miss’ experience. You’ll laugh. You’ll cheer. But in the end, you’ll realize that something infinitely better could have been built out of this duo’s onscreen presence together. They’re terrific. Central Intelligence is just tepid.