‘Central Intelligence’ is Funny and Sweet, and We’re As Surprised As You Are

You might assume Central Intelligence is garbage, and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s yet another run through that wheeziest and most retrograde of genres, the male buddy action/comedy; it stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart, two engaging performers whose filmographies are, to put it charitably, hit and miss; its tagline (“Saving the world takes a little HART and a big JOHNSON”) is wretchingly cutesy. And it doesn’t exactly start promisingly, with a flashback to high school predicated on the hilarity of The Rock nude in a fat suit. But that prologue ends with its two leads sharing a moment of strange and genuine warmth, a tip to where they’re going with this thing. I’m not sure this movie would’ve worked with any other performers, so the end result is less about a compelling narrative than chemistry and charisma. But that’s what movies like this are ultimately about anyway.

They play high school classmates on opposite ends of the social spectrum, Johnson the unfortunately named friendless outcast Robby Weirdicht, Hart the BMOC Calvin Joyner, whose nickname “Golden Jet” promises a bright future that he’s not quite managed to achieve. Their twenty-year high school reunion is approaching, and Calvin, an office drone, is planning to skip it so he doesn’t have to answer the “’what’re you doing now’ question,” convinced as he is that he “peaked in high school.”

Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in "Central Intelligence"

Then he gets a Facebook friend request from Robby, now going by the nondescript “Bob Stone” and looking like, well, The Rock. It’s a gloriously weird character, and performance – beneath his bulging muscles and angular features, he’s still awkward, kind, and a little bit damaged. He can take out a quartet of bar bullies without breaking a sweat, but he’s still personally clumsy, his notions of social interaction pulled from beer commercials and ‘80s movies. Johnson’s gleefully self-aware, down-for-whatever spirit has made him a talk show and SNL fave, but it’s never been as effectively showcased onscreen as it is here.

Anyway, it turns out Bob is a CIA agent gone rogue, enlisting Calvin’s accounting know-how to either help him capture a nefarious super-criminal (according to him) or to help him make a fortune selling secrets to a nefarious super-criminal (according to his agency boss, played by Amy Ryan, who does the best she can with a nothing role). The screenplay — by Neighbors and Mindy Project co-star Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers) — wisely keeps that question open all the way through, less to keep the audience off balance (I mean, c’mon, the Rock’s not gonna turn out to be the villain) than to keep Hart that way.

Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in "Central Intelligence"

It’s a mode he plays well. If the film is littered with the DNA of buddy pictures like Midnight Run, Rush Hour, Bad Company, Bad Boys, 48 HRS., Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix abomination The Do-Over, Johnson’s The Rundown, and Hart’s Ride Alongs, their byplay is closer to the Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor comedies — that is, if Wilder were a bodybuilder (which I realize is a weird mental image). But Hart does what Pryor did in those films, getting laughs out of big beats of fear and confusion, small laughs from off-the-cuff line readings and reactive moments, and keeping just enough potential of danger running underneath to make his own eventual heroism credible. And Thurber does them both the favor of taking their characters seriously, no matter how silly the situation surrounding them – these are men approaching middle age, with real hopes and fears and disappointments that end up coloring the narrative, and driving it. Everyone told Calvin he had greatness in him, and he’s surrendered himself to the notion that they were wrong. But Bob, who idolized Calvin, still sees that greatness. And he isn’t taking no for an answer.

You can pick Central Intelligence apart, if you’re so inclined; it’s too damn long, its supporting characters (particularly its women) are paper-thin, and Thurber rarely manages to put much of a comic spin on its well-worn action sequences. But it’s hard to ding a movie whose leads are working this hard — particularly Johnson, who’s so cheerfully goofy yet gosh-darned genuine that he gives the picture considerably more pathos and sweetness than you’d expect. Sure, it’s junk. But it’s high-spirited, good-natured junk, and its heart is in the right place.

Central Intelligence opens Friday.