Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence (Photo: Warner Bros.)
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Rawson Marshall Thurber
STARS Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart
Critics often dismiss certain films (and not unreasonably, I might add) as nothing more than “formula pictures,” bland movies that star popular actors playing stock characters being thrust into predictable situations. Every once in a while, though, one of these efforts breaks free of the shackles of complacency and conformity and is elevated from a mere “formula picture” into a “winning formula.”
Central Intelligence is one such title. On paper, it looks like the same-old same-old: A buddy action-comedy in which at least one of the pair is a cop and both are forced to bond as they confront murderous villains with itchy, NRA-approved fingers (see Hot Pursuit, Bulletproof, 48 Hrs., and about 48,000 more). In this one, Dwayne Johnson plays the law enforcement officer, a garrulous CIA agent operating under the name Bob Stone. As shown in flashbacks, Bob was a portly teenager and mercilessly bullied in high school, with the only person bothering to stick up for him being Calvin Joyner, the most popular kid on campus as well as the one voted most likely to succeed. But as an adult, Calvin (Kevin Hart) is thoroughly unhappy with his lot in life, as his job as an accountant is unsatisfying (particularly since he’s constantly passed over for promotions) and has even led to tension with his wife Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). But once Bob hits town for the 20-year class reunion, everything changes in a flash, as Calvin now finds himself inadvertently drawn into a massive CIA operation involving encrypted bank accounts, turncoat agents and a mysterious criminal mastermind known as the Black Badger.
As I say, formula. The spyjinks play like second-tier Mission: Impossible (though Amy Ryan is perfect as an ice-cold CIA boss), and director Rawson Marshall Thurber is no better than adequate in his staging of the action sequences. But as a comedy — and as a two-seater vehicle for a pair of highly charismatic actors — Central Intelligence is hard to resist. As I’ve stated in past reviews for movies like The Wedding Ringer and Ride Along, Hart is always better than his material, but not this time. Even though he’s theoretically playing the piece’s straight man, he’s still given plenty of opportunities to show off his wired brand of comedy, especially when reacting to Bob’s very particular set of skills. He also enjoys an easy rapport with Johnson, who clearly is the star of the show. The artist formerly known as The Rock has long since proven that he has more natural acting chops than any other former muscleman-turned-thespian (sorry, Arnie), and he’s probably only going to get better. Already having flashed his comic chops in such pictures as Pain & Gain and Be Cool, he’s absolutely riotous as a perpetually cheerful guy who is fond of unicorns and cites Sixteen Candles as his all-time favorite film (he always related to the Molly Ringwald character). He’s the central reason why Central Intelligence works as well as it does.