Central Intelligence

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/28/16 03:47:47

"Buddies that are actually fun to be around."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Movies like "Central Intelligence" are so routinely unimpressive - not terrible, mind you, but not great at either action or comedy, with the one tending to hold the other back - that seeing the formula actually work makes for such a pleasant surprise that it's hard to tell how to react. This one knows what it's doing, using the action to punctuate a big, highly entertaining odd couple comedy.

The odd couple are Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) and Rob Stone (Dwayne Johnson). Twenty years ago, they went to high school together but didn't have much contact until a group of bullies humiliated the tubby Rob (who had an embarrassing name to boot back then) and the incredibly popular Calvin showed him a modicum of kindness. Now, while Calvin wound up married to his successful and still-stunning high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), he's an accountant who has seen assistants promoted over him, not really living up to "most likely to succeed". Rob, meanwhile, has become a perfect physical specimen and CIA field agent, even if he is still kind of a dork. In town for the high school reunion, he asks Calvin to take a look at some accounts, sucking the other man into spy stuff that is much more than he ever bargained for.

A lot of things go into making something like this work, but one thing that Central Intelligence does that a lot of comedies built around mismatches and fish out of water don't is to find strangeness everywhere - as much as Rob is obviously a complete goofball, the fawning over Calvin in the opening flashback and the antics in his office are kind of screwy in their own way. Aside from it being welcome awareness that people go to comedies to laugh and don't exactly want to wait until the set-up is finished for it, this lets director Rawson Marshall Thurber and his team drop Calvin into a word situation and not realize he's stuck there until well past the point of no return, getting the audience on board as well.

Hand in hand with that is that the film is seldom actually mean-spirited; the school assembly scene quickly defines Calvin by his decency rather than some potential arrogance, even if that's what could drive his feelings of his life being a disappointment later. The filmmakers are always keenly aware of where the line between Rob's obsession with Calvin being a little uncomfortable and potentially dangerous is, generally starting on the right side of it and working it into the story. Characters may do ridiculous things, but always seem to have their reasons.

Most importantly, Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson are a great team. They're obviously a great contrast visually, with Johnson tall, muscular, and often crammed into outfits generally not made for that sort of physical specimen, while Hart is short and moves with a twitchy uncertainty. Johnson has the most memorable comedic performance, spending most of his time projecting complete confidence in incongruous, not-traditionally-masculine things only to shrink from stuff he should easily be able to handle, excitedly deadpan in a way that other actors can seldom pull off. It's a performance designed to overshadow Kevin Hart's everyman, but the movie doesn't work if Hart's reactions don't always highlight the absurdity that Calvin is dealing with without implying superiority, even as he's often being kind of silly in his own way. It certainly doesn't hurt that they've got a good group to bounce off of when the story needs more than just the two of them, either. Danielle Nicolet may be a bit underused as Maggie - the writers want enough tension in the marriage to make Calvin nervous but not enough that dealing with it distracts from Calvin & Rob - but she certainly helps keep a scene lively rather than dragging it down. Amy Ryan makes the CIA officer in charge of dealing with Rob's mess the right blend of intimidating and sneakily funny. Ryan Hansen, Aaron Paul, Kumail Nanjiani, and others all add a laugh or the to their scenes, as do a couple of uncredited folks whose names are big enough and uncredited, so it would be wrong to spoil the surprise, even if one certainly feels like more than that sort of cameo.

Thurber handles action well enough when it's called for, but he seems more aware than most people making this sort of movie that giving it too much importance can overwhelm the comedy and handles things accordingly. Not all the jokes land - they seldom do - but even the stretches have the earnest and likable Hart & Johnson behind them, and a comedy team that good can make the good parts seem much closer together.

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