Central Intelligence is precisely the film you want it to be, a breezy popcorn flick of a summer comedy and a film that utilizes its co-stars, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, in exactly the ways we've come to know and love them. While the film is too long by at least 15 minutes, Central Intelligence has such a warm heart and goofy charm that the vast majority of audiences won't mind a bit that the film overstays its welcome and lays out a story that's about as paint-by-numbers as it can get.
Hart plays Calvin Joyner, who is approaching his 20th high school reunion with a sense of dread after having never, in his own eyes, lived up to his potential as the school's all-around all-star voted "Most Likely to Succeed." Calvin wasn't just his high school's Mr. Everything, though, but a genuinely good guy and perhaps the only one who was truly kind to Robbie Weirdicht, an overweight kid with serious dance moves and an even more seriously weird, well, you know. In Robbie's greatest moment of high school humiliation, it was Calvin who rescued him and it's an act of kindness he'll never forget.
While the adult Calvin feels like his life has taken a downward trajectory despite marrying his high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet) and working as a successful accountant, Robbie has transformed himself into Bob Stone, whose fatness has turned into fitness and who has turned into a tough guy with a serious dislike for bullies while maintaining his high school fondness for unicorns and fanny packs. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, except for those unicorns and fanny packs, and Bob is now a CIA agent and before long Calvin has been drawn into a CIA caper filled to the brim with stylized action sequences, sabotaged satellites, global espionage and two characters that do everything you want Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson characters to do.
If you've followed Johnson's career, and who hasn't, then you already know that Johnson can manage to play both hardcore, menacing action characters and downright goofy ones. I mean, seriously, Tooth Fairy anyone? While Johnson has a limited acting range, he's practically mastered working within that limited range in a way that should leave most comedic actors in awe. While there's nothing in Central Intelligence that's going to leave you in tears, Johnson does manage to infuse Stone with a surprising degree of vulnerability and an overall sweetness that feels genuine even as he displays an ambiguity that leaves you wondering, ever so slightly, who the real bad guy in the film really is (though it is fairly obvious!). Johnson simply can play the type of character who can go seriously whupass on anyone who crosses his path while still carrying an almost puppy dog type woundedness left over from his high school days. Is it brilliant acting? No, but it fits nicely within the context of this type of popcorn flick and, perhaps more importantly, it's exactly the type of character American audiences love to see Johnson playing.
Considering the film's advertising tagline has openly played with the whole "little Hart" and "big Johnson" theme, it should come as no surprise that director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We're the Millers) seriously plays up the vast differences in size and physique between Hart and Johnson.
Sadly, I've always leaned toward "a little Hart" myself." Sigh.
While one could argue that Hart comes off best alongside another actor capable of keeping pace with him, there's something infinitely likable about the relaxed, friendly chemistry between Hart and Johnson. Hart's Calvin Joyner has Hart's usual manic character, though there's a depth and heft to his performance here that is significantly more satisfying than his other recent work. It may help that he's working alongside Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan and Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani along with a terrific brief appearance by Jason Bateman expanding upon his under-appreciated work from last year's The Gift. While no one would ever accuse Hart's work of lacking in energy, his work here feels more inspired and in focus than we've seen from him for a bit.
Central Intelligence is a good flick and it may very well be good enough and likable enough that you'll forgive its flaws. The film's story, co-penned by Thurber, is about as paint-by-numbers as a comedy can get and I couldn't help but wish that Thurber had spun the humor just a tad darker and more pointed. Both Hart and Johnson are capable of going deeper, but it seems like everyone was content here to make a market friendly motion picture devoid of anything resembling an edge. This is a good film that could truly have been one of the year's best comedies.
Maybe that's nit-picking. After all, Central Intelligence IS a good film with winning performances turned in even by some of the cameo players whose characters feel more than a little unnecessary. There's something to be said for a breezy, feel good popcorn flick that does exactly what you want it to do and leaves you smiling as you exit the theatre. While it may not require a whole lot of actual intelligence, Central Intelligence will leave you appreciating guys with a little Hart and a big Johnson.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic