Editor’s Notes: Central Intelligence is open in wide theatrical release today, June 17th.
You have to hand it to Kevin Hart – by “hand it,” we mean turn over your cash, credit card, or money order – he’s an incredibly canny businessman, exploiting his most valuable resource (i.e., a comedian by the name of Kevin Hart), for maximum profitability. From his start as a stand-up comic and marginal movie roles, he’s kept his eye on the prize, full-fledged, unqualified movie star status and all the perks that come with that status. He’s tag-teamed with Ice Cube (2x), Will Farrell (once), Josh Gad (once), and now, probably the biggest co-star of Hart’s still evolving career, Dwayne “Don’t Call Me the Rock” Johnson in Central Intelligence, a middling, uninspired action-comedy that leans heavily on Hart and Johnson’s respective strengths as performers, their individual personas, and their onscreen chemistry.
In small doses, Hart’s antics can make even the most hardened cynic or skeptic break out in laughter . . .
For Johnson, “Bob Stone,” a made-up moniker for Robbie Weirdicht, a former high-school fat kid turned into hypertrophied wonder and rogue CIA agent, it’s not exactly the role of a lifetime, but Johnson shows a heretofore unknown – or at least unacknowledged – ability to play around the edges of his good-guy persona. In any other film, say, for example, the woefully underappreciated The Cable Guy or even Observe & Report, Stone’s stalker-level obsession with Hart’s milquetoast character, Calvin Joyner, a 30-something mid-level forensic accountant facing a pre-midlife crisis, would be seen less as the subject for wince-inducing humor and more for the dark, borderline psychotic behavior it truly is. That, of course, is an entirely different film, but Johnson’s ultra-cheery, too-close-for-comfort, boundary-breaking character gives us a hint of Johnson’s range. It might not be unlimited, but it’s broader than we might think.
. . . Hart in larger doses, the law of diminishing returns tends to apply.
Stone’s obsession with Joyner stems from Joyner’s seemingly random act of kindness. Bullies cruelly expose Stone (literally, since he’s naked) in front of his high-school peers during a pep rally. Only Joyner, the onetime big man on campus and all-around Mr. Popular known as the “Golden Jet,” steps in to help, offering Stone his letterman jacket. Fast forward two decades and Joyner can’t see what he has, including a beautiful wife and former high-school sweetheart, Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), not to mention a beautiful life, but on the recent promotion he didn’t receive. He expected to conquer the world before he hit forty, not end up working in an industrial park for an anonymous accounting firm.
Stone’s arrival changes everything. At first, it’s all about re-bonding – or really bonding for the first time – but before long, Joyner finds himself involved in an unsurprisingly rote, routine espionage plot involving secret codes, a black market auction, and the fate of the free (Western) world. Central Intelligence plays off Stone’s off-kilter behavior, hinting that he might not be what he seems, a wrongfully accused, rogue CIA agent, but a professional assassin behind the theft and potential sale of the secret codes in question. Of course, moviegoers know better. Central Intelligence isn’t a small, indie-produced action-comedy, but a mid-budget effort from a major studio co-starring two major stars (with all of the built-in expectations that implies). But under Rawson Marshall Thurber’s (Meet the Millers) direction, Central Intelligence semi-deftly exploits the ambiguity around Stone’s identity and his intentions, whatever they are.
As for Hart, he’s playing another in a long series of little men, both figuratively and literally, who chafes at his low social status (or his perception of such) and who, when push comes to shove, turns into a hyperactive, high-pitched man-child. Joyner sits well within Hart’s comic persona, but it’s a persona millions have come to embrace over the last half decade or so. In small doses, Hart’s antics can make even the most hardened cynic or skeptic break out in laughter. In larger doses, the law of diminishing returns tends to apply. The same law applies to Central Intelligence, unfortunately. Despite well-timed laughs early on, mostly surrounding Stone’s behavior, the memorable jokes and gags become fewer and farther between as Central Intelligence inches closer and closer to the end credits. In other words, it’s another Kevin Hart comedy, but a Kevin Hart comedy elevated by Johnson’s comic timing, charisma, and Johnson’s onscreen chemistry with Hart.
Central Intelligence is a middling, uninspired action-comedy that leans heavily on Hart and Johnson’s respective strengths as performers, their individual personas, and their onscreen chemistry.