Central Intelligence looks familiar. It has a pair of bonafide box office draws (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart), a mismatched leading duo (one’s big, one’s small), and the kind of teen-friendly tone and color scheme that lets audiences know it’s okay to approach. It’s inoffensive. And yeah, it is absolutely, 100% all of those things. But unlike just about every other Hart vehicle of late (Get Hard, The Wedding Ringer, Ride Along and its sequel), the formula amounts to something greater than its individual parts. Central Intelligence is genuinely funny, intriguingly plotted, and quite frankly one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Hart plays Calvin Joyner, a motor-mouthed accountant who feels he never lived up to his potential. In high school, he was one of those rare breeds who excelled at everything from sports and academics to extracurriculars like drama, while still maintaining a kind heart and in-check ego. As an adult, however, he feels adrift, especially once he realizes his 20-year high school reunion is on the horizon. Enter Bob Stone (Johnson), a former classmate who, while overweight and relentlessly bullied in high school, has since transformed himself into a modern-day He-Man. Bob is still enamored with Calvin, not only because he was the class hero, but because he once offered a helping hand to Bob in a moment of humiliation. But there’s more to Bob than meets the eye, and Calvin is soon caught up in a whirlwind caper that involves the CIA, satellites, and numerous double-crosses.
As always, Johnson impresses with how he can balance menace and vulnerability with a nimble and confident comedic timing. His Bob is surprisingly multi-layered, a wounded man-child who’s discovering that no amount of dead-lifting can erase the pain of his high school torment. In a fun bit of character building, he still indulges in many of the things for which he was once mocked, a fascination with unicorns and a reliance on fanny packs being the prime offenders. His golden retriever-like giddiness gives way to steelier edges as the character unfolds, and it’s a testament to both Johnson and the script that the character works as well as it does.
Hart is reliably amusing, with his trademark improvisation resulting in more memorable zingers than he’s achieved in his last half-dozen roles. Credit his supporting cast for what seems to be a renewed vigor; it’s certainly a boon to be playing opposite the likes of Oscar nominee Amy Ryan, Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani, and the great Jason Bateman, here tossing a comedic spin on his terrifying character from last year’s underrated The Gift. Hart and Johnson also have a breezy chemistry, their sensibilities dovetailing in a way that only fleetingly relies on their disparities in appearance. Forget Ice Cube; Johnson’s the actor to whom Hart should be hitching his wagon.
But though Central Intelligence features more turns than your typical studio comedy, the plot itself is still strapped to the same tracks as its contemporaries. There are a few forced setpieces, an underdeveloped and (as such) unnecessary love interest, and some character beats so flimsy that they feel like residue from another version of the script. And as good as Johnson is, he’s almost too likable, especially considering that the film wants us to be unsure of the character’s motives. Johnson can do it, but it would’ve benefited the film overall had he erred on the side of ambiguity just a bit more. It’s also about 15 minutes too long, and the film’s multiple epilogues start to dull the shine of everything that came before after a while. It’s a film in need of an editor.
Still, Central Intelligence is pure popcorn, a consistently engaging joyride filled with belly laughs and endearing, relatable characters. Like Johnson himself, there doesn’t seem to be a cynical bone in its body.