A film review by Craig J. Koban June 24, 2016


2016, PG-13, 107 mins.


Dwayne Johnson as Bob Stone  /  Kevin Hart as Calvin  /  Danielle Nicolet as Maggie  /  Bobby Brown as Gooch Coochie  /  Megan Park as Lexi  /  Timothy John Smith as Agent Nick Green

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber  /  Written by Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and Rawson Marshall Thurber

The new action buddy comedy CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE is proof positive that if you headline these genre efforts with just the right “buddies” that it can easily overcome most of their inherent faults.  

Like a perplexing three-way cocktail of TWINS, MIDNIGHT RUN, and SPY, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE gets a remarkably amount of mileage out of lead actors Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, the latter displaying some atypical performance shrewdness in essentially playing the straight man to all of his co-star’s man-child tomfoolery.  The plot developments in this film are as nutty as a proverbial fruitcake, but The Rock and Hart create a fully credible odd couple relationship in it.  That, and for a preposterously silly action comedy, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE does manage – with intermediate success - to have a serious and reflective undertone about how past trauma fundamentally alters a person. 

Early on Hart himself stakes a claim in this film that he will not be annoyingly reprising the same stock Kevin Hart-ian character that he has paraded around in one witless RIDE ALONG film after another.  If anything, he’s aggressively playing against his hyperactive motor-mouthed type and instead is uncharacteristically inhabiting the role of a more muted, reserved, and soft tempered everyman.  He plays Calvin, a happily married, but unhappily employed accountant that, twenty years ago, was a hotshot and promising athlete that was the talk of his school.  The film opens with a flashback to the mid 1990’s as we see Calvin at the height of his popularity, but another fellow classmate is the constant butt of insidious bullying…mostly because of his chronic obesity.  Robbie (Dwayne Johnson) is so out of shape and unloved that he's the constant target of jock hatred, which culminates in him being the butt of a painfully humiliating prank perpetrated in front of hundreds of his classmates during a pep rally.  The kind soul that is Calvin momentarily helps the emotionally devastated Robbie, but he flees the school, never to be heard from again. 



Flashforward to the present and Calvin is facing pressure from his wife (Danielle Nicolet) to attend their 20th high school reunion.  On the eve of the event Calvin receives a Facebook friend request from Robbie (now living under a different name) and agrees to meet him for coffee.  Calvin is astonished when he hooks back up with Robbie, seeing as he looks an awfully lot like a hulked out Dwayne Johnson and not the unhealthily chubby teenager that he once defended.  Their re-acquaintance is cut short, though, when a federal agent (a somewhat squandered Amy Ryan) shows up at Calvin’s door the following morning to inform him that Robbie is – yup! – a dangerously lethal rogue CIA agent that has killed his partner and stolen some precious intel.  Robbie, on the other hand, pleads with his new BFF that he’s the one being framed and now must desperately try to clear his name and reputation.  Taking Calvin along of a dangerous mission of redemption, Robbie tries to prove his innocence while evading the CIA at every turn. 

Again, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE coasts by on how well Johnson and Hart display ample and palpable on-screen chemistry throughout.  It’s one of those increasingly rare cases in a mainstream buddy action comedy where the main stars appear to be having great fun together and enjoy sharing time on screen, without one trying to shamelessly usurp dominance over the other.  Part of the subtle comic brilliance of their pairing – aside from their obvious and laughable size differences – is the compelling bait and switch personality approach to these two characters.  Going in, I was fully expecting Hart to be on full camera mugging histrionic mode with Johnson playing dutiful support.  It couldn't be anymore different, seeing as it’s Johnson himself that is set up as the spirited goofball scoring most of the verbal zingers.  That performance dynamic greatly assists the overall impact and comic momentum of CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, especially when the film teeters down some truly nonsensical plot developments later on. 

On a level of bone crunching action, The Rock is certainly functioning on pure autopilot (the film’s violence is of the laughably bloodless PG-13 variety), but it’s Robbie’s infectious wide eye personality that makes him such a winning presence in CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE.  Johnson plays him with the precocious mentality of child with the physical adult brawn and lethality of a runaway bulldozer.  Oh, and Robbie likes SIXTEEN CANDLES (a lot), unicorns (a lot) and despises bullies with a passion for obvious reasons (a lot).  Johnson has always had an affinity for comedy and action (his resume is positively peppered with multiple entries in both genres), but here he really hits his performance stride playing his “Jason Bourne in jorts” as such an endlessly agreeable man of limitless decency…that can also kill you in a thousand different ways.  The charming 44-year-old actor is exceptionally well paired with Hart, who shows a bit more comedic range this go around than what we’re accustomed to.  Many of the laughs in the film come at the expense of Calvin’s incredulous reactions to the madness that's surrounding him.  Watch one remarkably sly bit of physical comedy, for instance, when Hart speed walks away from a car that’s about to explode.  He’s not in scenery chewing mode here.  His overall sedateness at times is infectiously hilarious.  That, and Hart seems to be playing an actual human being this time with relatable insecurities and past regrets and not a bubbling cartoon character that screams and falls on cue. 

The overall plot of CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE – pitting a three way cat and mouse chase between the CIA, Robbie/Calvin, and the enigmatic and dangerous villain known only as “The Black Badger” – is pure cornball nonsense, highlighted by the reveal of the identity of the villain in question that’s telegraphed largely because of the appearance of one well known actor (which I will not reveal) and the “Law of Economy of Characters” (a principle that implies that film budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters played by big name actors, thereby meaning that a seemingly throwaway character played by a well known actor will not be casually discarded, leading him to be the revealed “mystery antagonist”).  CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE fumbles a bit stylistically with the action beats, relying on too much editorial overkill (granted, there’s two ingenious moments – one involving a banana and the other an ink toner cartridge from a photo copier – that are inspired).  

The final act of the film feels particularly protracted (it runs about ten minutes too long for its own good) and the story’s overall message regarding the social calamity of bullying is sometimes confused (the film sure thinks its “funny” superimposing the mug of a ripped and carved-out-of-granite specimen like The Rock over an overweight extra’s body for comedic effect, only then to use this shoddy CGI effect to milk sentimental points in the character’s favor).  Yet, despite all of its foibles, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE was a fairly nice surprise in subverting my expectations going in.  The film gives Kevin Hart a new comedic lease on life, especially coming on the heels of way, way too many witless and moronic buddy action comedies (he seems to mistakenly think that quantity of films equals quality) and fully cements why Dwayne Johnson is both a juggernaut action star force as well as a remarkably sincere and endearing actor that can tickle funny bones...when he’s not breaking the other bones of evil doersThat’s a lethal combination.   


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