By: 3-Deep (Three Beers) –
Abbott and Costello. Cheech & Chong. Penn & Teller. Key & Peele. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. These men and women are among the greatest, most screamingly funny comedy duos of all-time, not merely our time. In comparison, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart are not going to rise to their levels anytime soon with Central Intelligence, their first film together. In fact, their pairing falls somewhere among the ranks of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito: it’s novel merely in the sense that 1) they’re both box-office mammoths at the moment and 2) they’re massively disproportional to one another physically, hence comedy. Then again, that would be a disservice to Twins.
The newest film from Rawson Marshall Thurber, the director behind both the endearingly likable Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and the massively unappealing We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence centers mainly on Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Hart), a promising young high school superstar that unfortunately peaked way too early. It’s now 20 years later, he’s stuck at a dead-end 9-to-5 accountant job, and there are no signs of him moving forward with his life. His high school sweetheart, Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), is now his wife, but they’re having marriage problems and she’s actively seeking counseling. They have no kids together, and they’ve been living in the same neighborhood for all their lives. He’s in a rut. Big Time.
With his high school reunion on the horizon, Calvin can’t help but look back on his life with deep-seated regret. Despite the fact that he and his wife were the homecoming king and queen of their senior class, the former hot shot doesn’t want to revisit his former classmates. He knows he’ll only be showered with memories of former glory and endless questions about why he never pushed himself further. But unbeknownst to Calvin, he’s going to be welcomed by an unexpected blast from the past: Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson), a.k.a. Fat Robbie, Calvin’s exact opposite in practically every conceivable way in 1996 and the laughing stock of their class after an extremely embarrassing incident. Only Calvin recognized Robbie’s pain and helped him out in a time of need. And now, forever grateful, Robbie comes roaring back into Calvin’s life as Bob Stone, a much more suave, muscle-bound man than the fat, dorky teenager Calvin once knew. It’s a complete and total transformation, a head-to-toe renovation, but the surprises don’t end there.
As it turns out, Bob Stone is a CIA agent with a troublesome past, and he’s now on the run. Being tracked by his former colleague, Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan), Calvin unwittingly winds up in the middle of all this madness, as he dodges gunfire, explosions, lethal assassins, and general mayhem all around the city. Calvin is in absolute hysterics, but Bob never loses his cool. Trained to kill in an instant and never shy about using anything at his disposal as a weapon, whether it’s a ink cartridge or a nearby banana, Bob takes down baddies one-by-one, and he carries Calvin through it all with ease. And though Calvin initially wants nothing to do with all this insanity, he soon discovers that his former classmate might be the best thing in his life, even if he might be the one responsible for ending it.
The Rock is an enigma. He’s got charisma and charm for days, and he genuinely loves his fans and his work, but the former wrestler has never quite found the right role to compliment his versatile talents. He’s like a rocket (rock-et, if you will), filled to the brim with promise but never given the chance to properly take flight. Bob Stone isn’t the role that changes things. That said, however, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and one of the few roles that truly showcases Johnson’s true potential. Expendable enough to let The Rock flex both his action and his comedic chops, and complimented by the A-list star’s game-for-anything mentality, it’s the kind of buoyant, loose-fitting role that only he could truly give any justice. He gracefully owns it, and that pays off handsomely throughout.
Whenever The Rock comes on-screen, Central Intelligence is invigorated with life. His magnetism is radiant and bewitching, and his surprisingly agile sense of comedic timing produces some easy laughs throughout. He is solely what helps make Thurber’s new film more agreeable, likable, and watchable than a number of flatline comedies released this year. And through a screenplay from Thurber, David Stassen (The Mindy Project), and Ike Barinholtz (yes, MadTV‘s Ike Barinholtz) that allows Johnson to play up his improv skills in conjunction with the plot, while also welcoming a handful of genuinely surprising cameos in the process, The Rock gives one of his most rewarding performances to date.
But if The Rock is the fire that lets the hot air-balloon known as Central Intelligence fly higher, and higher, and higher to the air, Hart is the rock, ironically, that keeps weighing it down to the ground. Hart is the neutron to Johnson’s proton. Did I do science right? For all the positive reinforcements The Rock provides in stride, he can only do so much when paired up with Hart, a comedian who is almost actively trying to sabotage every movie he’s in — including this one. Although Hart is almost surprisingly nuanced at first, likably playing the straight man (for once) against The Rock’s appealing goofiness in the first 20 or so minutes, it’s not long before the Ride Along star settles back into his yelling, flailing, and screaming routine that got old before it even started.
Although Hart’s enthusiasm is commendable, it’s (slightly) more annoying-than-usual here because it’s actively hindering anything good happening in the movie. What promise is laid by The Rock is constantly squandered by Hart’s insufferable schtick, which never evolves and becomes more tiresome as it goes on. I know Hart has his fans, but this movie wholeheartedly convinces me that Hart simply does not work as a leading man. In five-to-ten minute chunks in other, better comedies like This is the End or Top Five, he can work wonders. If he exceeds that, it’s unbearable. He’s a supporting performer that shouldn’t have transitioned beyond that, but I can’t question dollar signs. And as a result, whenever he pushes beyond the 20 minute mark, it’s a long, long, long haul to endure.
Central Intelligence often feels like it belongs in 2005, right next to Wedding Crashers and Just Friends. After a point, it becomes exceedingly bland, propelled by hit-and-miss slapstick, predictable set-ups, and tiresome dick jokes. After a promising start, Thurber’s latest crashes and burns just like Calvin’s career goals. The premise is an entertaining one, if oddly very similar to the one seen in last month’s Adam Sandler Netflix trainwreck, The Do-Over, but it always settling in second gear. While Johnson almost brings it together, as I’ve mentioned several times already, it would be a Hercules-esque effort to make this buddy comedy work on his own, but he’s not one to put down a challenge. And he almost pulls it off. But he’s not a miracle worker (at least, not yet in his career), and he stumbles before the finish line. It’s a shame, but at least he produces a better film than I expected going in. That’s something, I guess.
Dwayne Johnson is clearly on the verge of making his first truly good starring vehicle. And though I highly doubt Central Intelligence was ever going to be it, it proves that he’s posed to make it sooner than later. I just hope it’s soon, and that it doesn’t involve Hart. Although, with both of them signed on to make a Jumanji remake with Jack Black and Tom Holland, inexplicably, I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes up just yet. Thurber’s new film is certainly not the worst comedy I’m going to sit through this year, but it was probably a mistake to put “intelligence” in the title for this one. I’m just saying.
Central Intelligence (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Kevin Hart yells, kicks, jumps, gets excited, or screams. You’re gonna need it.
Do a Shot: whenever Fat Rock comes on screen for the first time. You better get them ready early.
Do a Shot: for every unexpected celebrity cameo and supporting role.
Take a Drink: every time The Rock says “woah,” “wow”, or some variation of either.
Take a Drink: every time The Rock gets emotional.
Take a Drink: every time The Rock surprises Kevin Hart.