Central Intelligence isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a well-structured piece of fluff arranged around the right amount of substantive story beats.
So many modern comedies seem hell-bent on forcing irritating misanthropes onto the viewer, operating under the delusion that a higher concentration of assholes correlates with realism. Films like this underestimate the innate power of likability. The laughs you have alongside relatable protagonists are heartier, more resonant. Likability goes a long way. Without such infectious personas, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart would never have succeeded in the worlds of pro wrestling or stand up, let alone be bankable movie stars. In their first outing as a pair, the duo leverage their disparate brands of charisma to great effect, slyly playing just enough against type to feel inventive.
Central Intelligence isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it’s a well-structured piece of popcorn fluff arranged around the right amount of substantive story beats. The film shares a kinship with the 2012 21 Jump Street reboot, building its plot around the readily accessible psychological detritus every viewer retains from their high school years. Back in 1996, Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was an overweight outsider with no friends. When a cruel prank scars him at the last assembly of senior year, the only person there to help him is Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Hart), the most popular kid in school. The scene in question is a big piece of broad physical comedy, but underneath it, there’s a truly tender moment between the two leads. That little kernel of sincerity supports the rest of the film’s absurd twists and turns.
In the present day, Calvin is an accountant, having just been passed over for a promotion. He’s married to the prom queen, Maggie (Danielle Nicolet, who really should have been given more to do), but can’t shake the feeling that he peaked at graduation. He agrees to go out drinking with Robbie to avoid having to go to marriage counseling, only to discover that Robbie now goes by “Bob Stone” and looks suspiciously like The Rock. Their chemistry has a curious tone to it, but it’s impossible not to root for their strange little friendship. Johnson does such fine work in the film’s prologue as a CGI assisted fat kid that even when he evolves into the action hero we know and love, he’s still able to sell that awkwardness, that tireless desire to fit in.
To his credit, Hart delivers the best screen performance of his career. He may not be in Eddie Murphy territory in terms of versatility, but this is the best balance he’s found in a film, adapting the good natured average Joe elements of his stage persona into a believable, engaging lead character. Maybe it’s the endless procession of box office hits under his belt, but there’s an assuredness to the way he behaves that feels less like improvising and hoping for the best and more like a well-crafted person being brought to life. He’s hilarious, but he isn’t so scattershot while making those laughs happen.
This buddy comedy transitions into an action thriller when we discover Robbie is a CIA agent; this seamless shift is a testament to the appeal of its two leads and the charm of the writing. Though he lacks the finesse and execution of Edgar Wright, Dodgeball helmer Rawson Marshall Thurber deploys a few Shaun of The Dead tricks to the genre. The back and forth between Johnson and Hart is enough to ground even the most incredulous plot reversals, because whether or not you’re really invested in the by-the-numbers spy flick framework, you really want to see Calvin regain his confidence, and the symmetry of Robbie being the one to help him do it is touching in a way comedies like this rarely are.
There are some fun turns from a few surprise cast members in the film’s second half, but it’s just a hair longer than it ought to be. The decision to make a mystery out of whether or not Robbie is a hero or a delusional supervillain makes sense for the spy-fi half of the narrative. But for the nourishing buddy comedy that drives the narrative forward, Central Intelligence would do better to let the genre exercise be set dressing for a more satisfying character piece. As it stands, it’s one of the most entertaining summer movies of the year, and a refreshing change of pace from the glut of overstuffed tent poles being paraded out every week.