Whatever fun there is to be had with the new buddy action comedy Central Intelligence has nothing to do with the action nor the comedy; it’s the buddy role reversal.
Curiously, though interestingly playing against type, Dwayne Johnson is the seemingly crazy one while Kevin Hart plays it relatively straight. He’s still a motor-mouth but it has less to do with a spitfire delivery of comedic one-liners and more with plain, simple fear.
Hart plays Calvin Joyner and he’s an accountant, the normal guy with a normal life. It’s not the one he wanted. Twenty years ago, back at high school, he was the popular one, the golden boy, the one most likely to succeed. Now, married to his high-school sweetheart, he’s stuck in an office with the kind of life that offers little other than a regular income. To make matters worse, despite being really good with numbers, he’s passed over for a promotion.
On the other hand, Johnson’s character, Robbie Weirdicht, has lead the kind of life no one could ever have imagined. Once the plump, unpopular kid back at high school, bullied and humiliated in front of everyone during a pep-rally, Weirdicht has reinvented himself as someone called Bob Stone. After working out six hours a day, every day for twenty years straight, he’s now a pumped up, muscles bursting at the seams, CIA undercover agent, and it appears he might be going rogue.
After twenty years out of senior high, what appears to be an accidental meet-up on Facebook results with a reluctant Calvin and an over-enthusiastic Bob going out for a drink. That’s when the mechanics of plot begin. Whether he’s really the bad guy or not, it’s never quite clear, not at first, but for whatever reason, lethal CIA agent Bob intentionally pulls a confused Calvin into the dangerous world of car chases, shoot-outs, secret agents and double-crosses. Calvin may have been looking for something a little more exciting than accountancy, but dodging bullets wasn’t one of them. “Take the gun,” Bob instructs Calvin. “We may have to kill some people.”
Both Johnson and Hart are likable performers. They’re not necessarily great actors but they’re good and getting better, plus audiences warm to them, which is why this role reversal of types is so amusing. But the film has issues, several, and they have nothing to do with the two leads.
With all kinds of dangerous looking double-crossing agents in pursuit of Bob, who himself might be on the wrong side of things, everyone, good or bad, is at risk, including innocent bystanders and anyone else who stands in the way. Amy Ryan is the unsympathetic and ruthlessly determined CIA agent whose tactics to get what she wants are so merciless and threatening you have to pray there’s no one actually like her working in the government protecting the country. If the kind of bullying and threats she uses on the innocent to get what she wants is CIA business as usual, heaven help us.
Of course, this is a comedy, and characters do outrageous and unlikely things in broad, larger-than-life sweeps to get the laughs, but in Central Intelligence, once the dust is settled and all truths and character identities are finally revealed, if you take the time to look back, you’ll probably say, now wait a minute. Events are so elaborate and convoluted, they’re borderline bizarre, like a deliberately over-engineered Rube Goldberg machine constructed to present something simple but in the most intentionally complicated way possible.
Plus, the effective moments of humor are not so much the thrills and spills of violent action nor Calvin’s comically fearful reaction to them but the several movie references. Big man Bob, besides a love for unicorns and hugging everyone, has a thing for both Patrick Swayze’s Road House and Molly Ringwald’s Sixteen Candles. When he asks Calvin if he’s seen the famous 1984 brat-pack comedy, Calvin responds with, “I’m black, so…” And when Calvin calls his wife Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) to assure her there’s nothing to worry about, she asks, “Is everything alright, ‘coz you sound like Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas.”
But among all the shootings, car wrecks, the occasional scene of torture and blood spilling – someone blows up in a see-thru elevator, his body parts splattered over the glass, and it’s repeated in flashbacks – Central Intelligence is not nearly funny enough no matter how entertaining Johnson and Hart can be. What humor exists is ultimately strangled by an overly complex plot full of violent action. It doesn’t work as well in a comedy, and when it’s for the laughs that most will be paying to see, the film has a problem bigger than any conflict the likable leads have to face.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 114 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)