Do you ever get the sense that a movie was pitched as a concept for a poster more so than an actual production? That’s exactly the feeling that permeates Central Intelligence, a throwaway Summer comedy that is mostly there to make some quick cash off of two very bankable stars. The tagline, which talks about saving the world with a little Hart and a big Johnson (get it?), is probably the most clever thing in the entire movie, and it’s not even in the movie itself!
To be fair, Central Intelligence isn’t bad, it’s just very, very average, to the point where it will be quickly forgotten, which seems to be a frequent problem among most of this year’s June movies. If you’re a big fan of Dwayne Johnson or Kevin Hart, you’ll probably have some fun with Central Intelligence, but you’ll barely remember even a handful of the mess of throwaway jokes and paper-thin storytelling by the time you exit the theatre.
Central Intelligence is a pretty by-the-numbers buddy action-comedy, but it does at least make a small effort to play with the reputations and statures of its protagonists. Rather than make Johnson’s character the competent, level-headed action man and Hart’s character the goofy, over-the-top stooge, half of that formula has been mixed up a bit. This leads to Johnson’s character, Bob Stone, being portrayed as a socially awkward CIA bruiser, and Hart’s character, Calvin Joyner, being portrayed as the more grounded straight man, yet also being the louder and more intense of the two characters. On paper, it’s kind of interesting, and the comedic switch with Johnson is particularly refreshing in a few places.
That said though, some of the attempts to play with the lead personalities only go so far. For all of his silly, over-the-top moments, Johnson is still the ass-kicker, and Hart is still the helpless naysayer that is constantly trying to just run away from the whole mess. The movie can be funny when it does manage to play with the irony in switching up what you would expect from Johnson and Hart in a movie like this, but in the second half especially, many of the jokes lose steam before they properly get off the ground. By the time the climax has arrived, the movie has just given up all pretense, and stops trying to juxtapose the character sensibilities, simply phoning in the exact finale sequences that audiences would expect from these stars.
Making matters worse is that Central Intelligence wants to be a youth advocacy anthem of some kind, providing hope to socially maladjusted, unattractive teenagers by potentially showing the better people they can grow up to be, and also trying to show that not all popular kids in high school are jerks. There are inklings of wisdom in how Central Intelligence wants to provide hope and perspective to its adolescent target audience through the teenage history of Bob and Calvin, but oftentimes, it bites off more than it can chew in trying to capture this subtext. As much as the movie wants us to feel sorry for an overweight, frequently tormented Bob, it equally demands that we laugh at him along with everyone else, which feels contradictory. Likewise, as much as the movie wants to respect the well-earned likability of Calvin, who became a beloved high school paragon from actual achievements and not putting down the other kids, the attempt falls flat when it degrades into yet another tired, overdone arc of a mid-life-crisis-plagued Calvin failing to appreciate his impossibly gorgeous wife and perfectly stable job, for seemingly no reason.
There’s a couple of other noteworthy supporting actors, namely Amy Ryan as CIA agent, Pam Harris, who is trying to bring a rogue Bob into custody for allegedly being affiliated with arms dealing, and Aaron Paul as Bob’s former partner, Phil, who died in the line of duty, and who torments Bob in the present with his memory. If you think it’s illogical to spring for Aaron Paul for a flashback or two, then you’ve probably seen plenty of buddy comedies, and can see the movie’s big twist coming a mile away, long before the confused, somewhat tedious climax. There’s a couple of other cameos that further confuse the tone and themes, which I won’t spoil, but by then, it just feels like a waste of actors who, like Johnson and Hart, deserve to be in a better movie than this.
Despite its noble ambition, Central Intelligence is a pretty by-the-numbers buddy action-comedy. It’s a movie about former popular kid, Calvin Joyner getting back in touch with former overweight laughingstock, Bob Stone, who is now, well, Dwayne Johnson. Stone is quickly revealed to be a rogue CIA agent though, and Calvin is quickly whisked along on a series of hilarious, destructive misunderstandings as he has to figure out whether Bob is truly on the level, and what exactly he’s been pulled into. Like I said, it’s a very by-the-numbers story for this genre of movie.
Some of the movie’s first half has some fairly decent jokes, and overall, Central Intelligence is amusing enough, even if many of the jokes simply end up being middling, rather than hilarious. Johnson and Hart are clearly constrained by the movie’s PG-13 rating, and that seems to hurt Hart especially, who is often left to do little more than speak quickly and scream loudly, in an effort to try and add life to a painfully average script. By the time the halfway point has rolled around, Central Intelligence has exhausted a lot of its best creative inspiration too, leading to a climax and ending that feel far too predictable and phoned in.
Central Intelligence is directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also contributed to the movie’s script. Thurber is best known as the helmer of 2013’s decent pot smuggling comedy, We’re the Millers, and 2004’s gleefully juvenile sports comedy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. That should probably give you an approximate idea of the exact level of presentation and humour that you’re in for in Central Intelligence, which is to say, acceptable, but highly disposable.
Central Intelligence tries its best to wring fun and energy out of a very middling plot, but the direction mostly just tries to make things more in-your-face, in favour of actually framing things in a truly witty or laugh-out-loud way. There’s something very workmanlike about the presentation of Central Intelligence, which is carried entirely on the shoulders of Johnson and Hart, two actors who are better than this material. Without them, Central Intelligence wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, since its direction is no more noteworthy than its boilerplate script.
Central Intelligence is a tide-over Summer action-comedy that works, but never truly impresses. Johnson and Hart are both definitely going to move on to bigger and better movie projects from here, though I do think that their pairing isn’t an innately bad idea. The two do have solid comedic chemistry here, and if they’re given a better script to work with, they could produce something truly hilarious and memorable together. Sadly, Central Intelligence doesn’t end up being either.
Even if it’s not great though, Central Intelligence is inoffensive, and has sporadic moments of genuine fun, even if a couple of them were given away in the trailers. After a slew of great comedies like Keanu, The Nice Guys, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising in recent weeks and months though, the high grading curve that 2016 has established for the past few big comedies further hurts Central Intelligence, making it feel like even more of a throwaway offering as moviegoers wait for better comedies to come later. Whoever came up with that great tagline does deserve a raise though!
- Pairing Johnson and Hart is a great idea
- Some solid jokes and moments of fun
- Makes a valiant effort to send a positive message to teens
- Fumbles its anti-bullying theme by confusing the message
- Story quickly loses steam and becomes too predictable
- Surprise actor cameos are largely wasted