Two Kevin Hart films in a row, that’s a first. In terms of “in” for the comedy genre, be it stand-up or on the big-screen, there are few who can really match him right now. Fresh off the success of sudden franchise Ride Along with Ice Cube, Hart has turned around and basically kept to the same concept to a large extent, only this time with Dwayne Johnson in the role of large comic foil. On a week with a shortage of truly stand-out releases (sorry, David Yates, The Legend Of Tarzan seems like more of a rental, honestly), it seemed like proper Saturday night fare. But was Central Intelligence the formulaic summer comedy it seemed to be, or something a bit worthier of note than that?
Having once been destined for greatness in high school, Calvin Joyner (Hart) finds himself unhappy and unfulfilled twenty years later, trapped in a job he dislikes and with a struggling marriage. Enter “Bob Stone” (Johnson), once the constantly humiliated overweight kid in Joyner’s school, now a chiselled CIA operative out to stop terrorists from getting their hands on top secret material. Though Stone is clearly a bit unhinged, Joyner finds himself sucked into his audacious mission to defeat the bad guys and save the free world.
There’s little of real substance to say about a film like this. It does, if you will pardon the cliché, exactly what it says on the tin, with little more and little less. You expect a 90-minute comedy with two of cinema’s current leading lights, and that’s what you get.
Hart is basically playing the same character that he has been playing in everything for a while now – this sort of pent-up straight man, who plays normal down to earth guy only to unleash a manic comedic energy at critical moments – and even a brief glance at a stand-up routine of his after the showing confirmed for me that his range is severely limited. But he isn’t required to do all that much in Central Intelligence, other than to give Johnson someone to play off of: and that he does, in spades.
It’s Johnson who is the stand-out here. He’s a bizarrely under-rated actor in my opinion, and no more so than in the comedy genre, where his presence, his timing and his enthusiasm for material that might otherwise flounder, help to make the difference, and stop Central Intelligence from being a joyless flop. His “Bob Stone”, a clueless naïve muscleman who happens to be able to defeat numerous goons all at once, plays really well with Hart’s restrained accountant, and much of the humour in Central Intelligence is simply that: seeing the ordinary guy dealing with the extraordinary behemoth who smashes his way into his life.
The script, from director Rawson Marshall Thurber, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, does the necessaries without ever threatening to turn into the kind of wordplay that would make Central Intelligence iconic (Thurber’s best effort as a writer/director, Dodgeball, seems like a distant memory watching this). Again, it’s nearly all in the reactions of Hart to Johnson’s buffoonery: his violent outbursts, his rapid tidying of messy situations, or his creepy endearments. Upon telling Hart that he looks “sexy as dick”, the deadpan response – “You don’t look a man in the eyes and say something like that” – is a fairly good summation of what Central Intelligence has to offer, but on occasion there are more carefully formulated moments, like when Johnson, whose truly massive body dominates the screen, explains carefully that it is the result of spending six hours in the gym every day for twenty years, as if it is the easiest thing in the world.
But of course it’s all so formulaic and uninspired. This is the kind of film, so regular now that four or five of them are made every summer, that is making its money as easily as it can, without the kind of effort that could produce a Bridesmaids, The Hangover or 22 Jump Street. The celebrity cameos are plentiful – Jason Bateman and Thomas Kretschmann being the most notable, without spoiling anything – and the jokes trip along (a sequence featuring marriage counselling is fantastic) but you’ve been here before, and after the laughs have come to an end, you might be left wondering if there wasn’t a better way to spend your time.
Damn, that sounds bad. But it’s just a thought I’m having now, as I often do a few days after the event. It would help Central Intelligence a lot if it had something deeper to work on, but aside from a brief foray into the effect that your teenage years in education can have on your life decades after – the crux of the story being about people who can’t let go of who they used to be, whether they “peaked” in high school like Hart, was everybody’s favourite target like Johnson or was an unrepentant asshole like Bateman’s character – the film can’t claim to have any real depth. It serves as the bare backbone to support some middling action scenes and some alright laughs.
It’s predictable, but has a serviceable comedy combination at its heart. It’s uninspired, but capable of eliciting chuckles. It’s the summer popcorn comedy, in a 90-minute nutshell. If interested in a briefly experienced and quickly forgotten comedic production, then I recommend it.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).