Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast: Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Tim Griffin, Timothy John Smith, Jason Bateman
MPAA Rating: (for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 6/17/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 17, 2016
There's something discouraging about a movie that features two very funny performers giving it their all but being let down by the material. Central Intelligence, which stars Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, is such a movie.
It's not their fault that this movie falls flat more often than not. Johnson, typically may be typecast as an action hero on account of his imposingly hulking build and his ability to turn his face to stone (or rock, I guess, for those who know him from his wrestling days), but comedy is the mode in which he genuinely shines.
He's keenly aware that his stature says one thing about our expectations of him, and he's not afraid to play against those expectations. Here, for example, he plays Bob Stone, a CIA agent who is proficient in the ways of gunplay and hand-to-hand—or whatever-object-is-near-to-face—combat. Bob is also a huge fan of a certain teen comedy from the 1980s and laments that he'll never be Molly Ringwald. Johnson says that line, by the way, in such a way that we're not sure if he's speaking on a metaphorical level or a literal one.
Hart is best known as a frantic, motor-mouthed comedian who is also comfortable with having jokes about his own stature thrown in his direction. There are moments here (perhaps not enough of them, if only because the sight itself is quite amusing) in which director Rawson Marshall Thurber emphasizes the obvious fact that there's a foot of difference between the two actors' heights, although that physical distinction is secondary to the real dichotomy—of personalities—on display here. For his part, Hart, as mild-mannered accountant Calvin Joyner, is relatively low-key, playing the straight man to Johnson's eccentric, touchy-feely persona.
That is, of course, until the plot kicks into gear. The story revolves around a—despite the movie's belief—not-so-complicated game of government secrets, in which Bob is being hunted by a CIA team under suspicion that he's trying to sell information about U.S. spy satellites.
In high school, Bob, who at the time had a problem and the unfortunate surname "Weirdich," was routinely bullied. Calvin, the most popular guy in school, was the only one to stand up for Bob when a group of bullies tossed him, naked, into the gym during a school assembly. When Bob sends Calvin a friend request online 20 years later, he accepts it and goes out for a night of drinking with Bob to avoid a couple's therapy session with his wife (Danielle Nicolet).
Bob tricks Calvin to look into a black market auction online, and the next morning, the CIA is knocking on his door. Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan), the leader of the task force trying to take Bob in or down, tells Calvin that his new friend is a dangerous fugitive who betrayed and killed his partner (Aaron Paul) to get the satellite intelligence (There's a trio of flashbacks to that relationship from three different perspectives: Bob's, Harris', and the objective truth's—the last of which amusingly plays off the notion that Bob's personality is a not-so-easily-acquired taste).
Once the agency is on the characters' tails, there's a considerable shift in the dynamic between them, and it's in that alteration that we can observe how in control of their performances the leads are. Hart becomes more harried as Calvin finds himself in a situation of which he wants out (Bob's logic: "To get out, you have to be in, first"), but the actor doesn't oversell it. There's also a degree of sympathy on Calvin's part for the man who has put his life in danger. Johnson maintains the sort of childlike spark that makes Bob endearing despite his eccentricities. It's as if he joined the CIA, not just because—as he says—he hates bullies (His royal smarm-ness Jason Bateman appears in a pair of scenes to put that to the test), but because he thought it would be fun to play the action hero.
The pair is likeable, and they play off each other well, which means it's disappointing how often the screenplay (by Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and Thurber) hinders their interactions. The problem is the plot or, better, the screenwriters' insistence on making more of it than is necessary (It doesn't help that the identity of the real villain is a given upon the character's first appearance). There are lengthy scenes that serve as little more than exposition dumps, and stranger, those scenes also exist to put Bob's loyalty into question. The second aspect doesn't work, both because Johnson's performance never insinuates anything worse than innocently misguided motives and because the heart of this central relationship, such as it is, depends upon a level of sincerity that the suspicion undermines.
It's to Johnson's credit that we never buy the notion that Bob could be a traitor, but the movie suffers for its insistence upon a false sense of the plot's complexity. Even when the jokes don't quite land, Hart and Johnson give Central Intelligence a sense of forward momentum, and it's a shame no one recognized that propulsion in the editing process.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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