Nutshell: Hart and Johnson make a great team in Central Intelligence, a film that focuses on the funny and puts the serious business of espionage on the back burner. That’s a good thing; here, it’s the connection (real or perceived) between the two characters that drives the film. That, and some wicked-cool dance moves. A bit too implausible at times, even for a comedy, and there’s a sense of missed connection with these characters.. But the unflinching look at how your experiences in high school can shape who you become grounds the film. Grade: B
Ever wonder what you could have been after high school? Or maybe you’re wondering what life will hold for you once you switch that tassel from right to left? Well, you may not be as badass as Dwayne Johnson’s superspy Bob Stone, but you probably didn’t go through his particular high school hell either. (At least I hope you didn’t.) Bob, who in high school was overweight, awkward, and so became the class pariah, grew up and bulked up. Twenty years later, he seeks out “his only friend” from high school, 1996’s BMOC Calvin “Golden Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart). Why? Because Calvin was kind to Bob when Bob needed him the most. Of course, there’s a hidden agenda; Bob knows that Calvin is an amazing accountant, and needs Calvin’s help cracking some files. Meanwhile, Calvin, who feels he hit his peak in high school and went downhill from there, is less than thrilled at the possibility of getting in deep with a possible rogue CIA agent. Yep. Seems Bob may be trying to pull one over on Calvin so Bob can sell out the good ol’ U.S. of A. Cue the buddy comedy!
Johnson is getting better and better with each role, but I’ve gotta admit I love it when he lets loose and gets his comedy on. Behind all that muscle lies a soul made for comedy. He’s got zero inhibitions when it comes to getting the joke, and isn’t above poking fun at himself in order to do it. (Keep your ears peeled for references to Hercules as well as his real-life persona.) Hart, of course, is made for this stuff, and Johnson eagerly keeps up with the gags. In fact, it’s Hart’s straight man that has to rein in Johnson’s unicorn-loving, fanny-pack-wearing, be-jort’ed agent.
Director Rawson Marshall (We’re the Millers) knows how to make the most out of a crazy situation, while still giving a peek at its heart and soul. Screenwriters Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (The Mindy Project) deliver a screenplay that balances crazy with scenes that dig into what it’s like to not only be the school pariah, but how it feels to believe you’re not living up to your golden-boy potential. Cameos from The Office‘s Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul (The Pact), and an uncredited Jason Bateman are groovy, but these folks bring their A-game to these small roles. I’d say more, but spoilers darling.
So why not give this film a higher rating? Well, for all its digging into the psyche of high schoolers and their adult alter-egos, it’s got too much going on to really let these moments sink in. With Bob and Calvin constantly on the run, there’s not much room for anything more than a quick peek at the character’s emotional depths, and then it’s on to the next bit of blam-blam. Plus, while all the stuntwork is impressive – seriously, some of this stuff is crazy cool – the slapstick plot amped up to almost Lewis-n-Martin levels of crazy. Both the overly busy pace of the film and the unbelievable way things progressed keep this film firmly in the “fun, but frothy” category.
If you’re looking for a way to laugh your guts out? Don’t do that, that’s dangerous. But Central Intelligence can definitely deliver on the belly laughs. But I just can’t shake the feeling that for all the great chemistry Hart and Johnson have, for all they put into this film, that it’s missing a reliability to the characters, a level of connection, that could have bumped this film up more than a notch. Bob and Calvin are cool, and they’re fun to watch. But they lack that something that makes a viewer truly connect with the story. Ah, just laugh it off.