There are different kinds of cinematic comedies. Some, like the films of the illustrious Edgar Wright, are masterworks that design groundbreaking methods to make moviegoers laugh. Others subvert real life to find its funny side: satires like Dr. Strangelove wittily comment on culture; parodies like This Is Spinal Tap skew popular movie trends. And then there are most modern comedies: they don’t bring anything new to the table, but they’re enjoyable diversions.
Central Intelligence is one of those diversions. You can watch the trailer and know exactly what to expect, but you should only see the movie if those expectations are what you’re looking for in the first place. It’s not comedy that requires much thought; there’s no greater reason for the film to exist other than “1. Make people laugh 2.Make money” — but Central Intelligence is fun and funny enough to give a light recommendation, largely due to a great central performance.
If occasional checks of Rotten Tomatoes have told me anything, it’s that Kevin Hart comedies should be strictly avoided. I was never a fan of his overwrought stand-up act and most of his movies are critically savaged. I went into Central Intelligence fearing the worst, but was pleasantly surprised — and not by Hart. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson flexes his impressive comedic muscles while Kevin Hart reacts.
The plot follows friends Calvin Joyner (Hart) and Bob Stone (Johnson). In high school, the former was a star student loved by all and the latter was a terrifying CGI blob that resembled The Rock.
Calvin was the only student that showed kindness to Bob (or “Fat Robbie” back then, because high school was always and always will be merciless), so years later, Bob recruits a reluctant Calvin on a mission to save the free world after going rogue from the CIA.
Despite the premise, Central Intelligence strikes an admirable balance between ludicrous and believable during its first act, allowing some appreciated character time. In broad comedies such as this, the ridiculousness factor usually ratchets up as the movie goes on, which is enjoyable when the climb is smooth. The transition to insanity doesn’t feel natural here though: in order for key events to take place, Calvin makes wholly unrealistic decisions that don’t make sense for the character, much less any rational person. The narrative becomes something to ignore rather than revel in.
What is there to focus on then? Well, this is Johnson’s show, through and through. In a move that caught me completely off guard, Central Intelligence’s best laughs stem from The Rock’s nuanced performance. He’s both typecast and cast against type, and he handles it with a sort of self-aware brilliance.
Of course Dwayne Johnson was cast as an experienced CIA agent — but that’s judging a book by its cover. As Bob Stone’s colorful unicorn shirts suggest, his personality is still that of a friendless, overweight high school kid. Every line The Rock speaks and every emotion he expresses comes from sensitivity so authentic that it’s boundlessly funny. The amount of joy I got from watching Dwayne Johnson disappear into a character with The Rock’s body and a shy loner’s personality was delightful.
Kevin Hart pales in comparison. His comedic style consists of rambling, improvised speeches and wide-eyed reactions to the chaos around him. It’s unfunny from the start, and progresses only towards tiring. His incessant shrieking at least makes The Rock’s dedication to character more endearing.
Once all is said and done and the plot threads tie up too nicely, Central Intelligence works primarily as a zany story from which Dwayne Johnson squeezes every possible bit of comedy ecstasy. Throw in a couple of celebrity cameos, and baby, you’ve got a mild stew going!
★★★ (3 out of 5)