Review: Kevin Hart and The Rock have explosive chemistry in enjoyable 'Central Intelligence'
Buddy comedies are a Hollywood staple at this point, and they’re fairly easy to execute at a baseline level of competence. Sometimes it’s a script that distinguishes one, sometimes it’s the easy chemistry between the stars, and sometimes it’s a director who elevates things. In the case of Central Intelligence, several things work better than I would have suspected, and as a result, I genuinely enjoyed the movie.
Color me shocked.
First and foremost, The Rock has become one of the most reliable brands in modern movies, and, yes, I am aware that I just called him a brand. I think he’s more than “just” a movie star. He’s an overall force of personality that exists to just shine positivity and humor and good energy into the world via movies, TV, wrestling, and social media. If The Rock didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. I even love that his “real” name, Dwayne Johnson, is featured everywhere but he remains permanently, even cheerfully, The Rock. What makes him special on film is that he is more than willing to try anything, and he hands himself over to filmmakers in a completely trusting way. He will rise to whatever challenge you set before him, and so far, he’s never hit something he hasn’t been able to conquer. I love his work in Pain & Gain, for example, and could watch a whole movie of him with cocaine-jaw. I don’t think he’s made non-stop great films, but I think he finds a way to be great in everything. He attacks each new role now, and he’s got pretty great instincts.
The script by Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen and Rawson Marshall Thurber does an excellent job of setting up Bob Stone (Johnson), aka Robbie Weirdick, in an opening sequence set during the senior year for Robbie and young Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart). Robbie’s a huge kid, and a bunch of bullies drags him naked out of the showers and throw him into the middle of a crowded assembly. The only person who is kind to him is Calvin, the school’s most beloved student, their pick for Most Likely To Succeed. The film then jumps forward to find Calvin on the eve of his high school reunion, and he’s an accountant now, a long way from the guy who ruled his high school. He married his high school girlfriend Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), but he feels like he’s trapped now. When he gets a mysterious Facebook friend request, he ends up back in contact with Robbie, who has transformed himself into a giant hulking muscleman. They have a fun night out catching up on things, and for the first time in a long time, Calvin is reminded of the guy he used to be.
There’s a tradition of films like this one. I’m particularly fond of The In-Laws with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, and a big part of what makes that film work is watching just how much fun it is when Falk unleashes a cascade of nonsense on poor Arkin. Johnson’s never had as weird of a character to play as he does here, but a lot of that is designed to distract from how hyper-efficient he is as a spy. Part of it is also because he made a choice to never be bullied about who he is or what he likes. He wears a fanny pack. He wears rainbow unicorn t-shirts. He’s like a walking dare for bullies, and Johnson knows how to play the fat kid who still exists somewhere inside that body. It’s a genuinely nuanced performance, and by the time comes full circle, it’s almost amazing how well the film pulls off the sweet amidst the ridiculous. While The In-Laws is an unassailable classic, Central Intelligence manages to be a far more coherent comedy than I would have expected, and it’s a worthy representation of the genre.
I find it particularly surprising because I disliked Rawson Marshall Thurber’s last film, We’re The Millers, quite a bit, and I think Dodgeball is one of those arch comedies that works in bits and pieces. In both films, I think Thurber’s had some real problems with tone. He seems far more interested in staging gags than in doing real character work or quiet moments between the jokes, and while Central Intelligence works in many ways, it’s not like it’s some radically different piece of material. It helps that they wrote real arcs for both Calvin and Robbie, and thematically, the film is soundly constructed. But credit has to be given to Thurber for finally realizing that the other stuff matters just as much as the jokes. He also got lucky because the chemistry between Hart and Johnson is effortless, and it makes all the difference in the world. I thought last year's Get Hard was a relentlessly ugly movie, wrong from the first step, and the biggest failure of it was the way Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart never clicked comedically. Sometimes it’s just not right, and seeing how well Hart and Johnson end up playing off of one another here is a reminder of how important that chemistry really is.
I wish the spy story was a little more clever or interesting, but I walked away happy with the overall experience because of sheer force of personality. Tech credits are fine, but there’s nothing especially inspired going on. Good supporting work from Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul, Tim Griffin, and Timothy John Smith helps make everything hum along, and there’s a great one-scene performance by Kumail Nanjiani, who is rapidly gaining a reputation as a guy who can crush it in just a little bit of screen time. Jason Bateman also shows up for one scene, and he kills it, reminding us that he did make his reputation as a kid by playing awful people. There’s a special appearance near the end of the film by someone I won’t name, but I’ll say that even though she’s only in one scene, it’s one of my favorite things she’s done. She knew exactly what that role required, and she made sure that she nails it, making Johnson look even better in the process.
If you hate either performer, I doubt Central Intelligence will win you over. For anyone open to that team, though, Central Intelligence offers a down-the-middle solid piece of entertainment with just enough social awareness and character nuance to make it stand out.
Central Intelligence is in theaters now.