Comedies nowadays are almost always built around the cult of personality surrounding its stars, and usually they include a lot of ad-libbed lines from the fifth or sixth take of some scene. It’s a style of comedy stemming from throwing things at a wall and seeing if they stick and editing the movie from that. A lot of times I don’t think it works, but in the case of Central Intelligence, it becomes consistently funny and charming, due almost totally to the performances and chemistry between Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart, overused storyline be damned.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a good comedic track record, with Dodgeball and We’re the Millers under his belt. He and co-writers Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen have crafted an action comedy that in lesser hands wouldn’t be successful. Pairing a big, beefy action star with a not-action-ready comedy star has immediate humorous elements but it would get old were it not for the stars themselves, and enough twists on the subject matter to make it interesting. It’s a movie where you know what’s coming but you’re not annoyed to have to wait for it.
The film begins 20 years ago. Kevin Hart plays Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner, the most popular kid in high school, a star athlete, an accomplished thespian, a 4.0 student, and the one voted most likely to succeed. His speech at a school assembly is interrupted by a group of bullies tossing a naked, overweight kid (Dwayne Johnson’s face superimposed on a body double) in to the gymnasium. As the entire school laughs, Joyner offers his letterman jacket to cover up, cementing him as this kid’s only “friend.”
Cut to present day and Joyner is an accountant at a firm and not anywhere he wants to be in his life, aside from marrying his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). On the eve of their 20-year reunion, Calvin gets a friend request from someone named Bob Stone and he agrees to meet for drinks. Bob Stone turns out to be the new name of the bullied kid and now he’s a massive and built guy who looks like the Rock. Except, Bob’s pretty weird. He’s still a huge nerd who references Twilight books and his favorite movie is Sixteen Candles, but he’s also clearly hiding something and uses his “hey, buddy” grin to get Calvin to help him with his overseas accounts.
It’s here that we find out that Bob is a CIA agent who is believed to have gone rogue and is selling State secrets. Amy Ryan plays the CIA director hunting him down and he uses Calvin to get away and be his partner, all the while acting like a dopey goody-two-shoes. The movie does a good job of playing up the angle of wondering whether Bob is really who he says he is–a framed agent out to clear his good name–or if he’s actually an insane murderer bent on selling secrets to the highest bidder. He’s this force of nature that completely turns Calvin’s life upside down, and while we’ve certainly seen stories like this a million times before, it was done with enough edge and tension as to not seem too ridiculous.
Hart is brilliantly adept at playing the put-upon, constantly out-of-his-league straight man. He feels like the everyman and doesn’t overplay anything unless it’s called for. This sets in contrast to Johnson who never overplays anything but is masterful at playing the slightly unhinged, “aw shucks” kind of character he never gets a chance to play. His voice is always in the higher register, he’s almost always smiling, and he looks surprisingly at home in a unicorn t-shirt and fanny pack.
So while the plot is nothing we haven’t seen before, the laughs roll throughout and the action sequences are good if not super flashy (save an impressive shootout in an office building). I laughed consistently. It’s a comedy; that’s what you want.
Image: New Line/Universal