Without Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson, Central Intelligence likely would have been a rock bottom, unfunny, unimaginative commercial comedy, but there’s a reason they’re widely known as some of the hardest working guys in Hollywood. Whether the material is on point or not, they give everything they do all they’ve got and in this case, their energy and charisma alone elevates the movie all the way from subpar nonsense to a moderately enjoyable, wide-appeal adventure.
Hart leads as Calvin. Back in high school, he was the big man on campus, rocking the nickname “Calvin the Jet” and being voted most likely to succeed. However, now Calvin’s just an accountant and the thought of attending his high school reunion as an unimpressive numbers cruncher is weighing on him. Then there’s Johnson as Bob Stone. He used to be a prime target for bullies but after an especially embarrassing incident during senior year, Bob trained hard, got ripped and is now a seemingly indestructible CIA agent.
Hart and Johnson are the heart (no pun intended) and soul of this film. Not only are they both highly likable and oozing with chemistry and charisma, but these characters are absolutely perfect for them. Ideally big stars completely lose themselves in their roles, but in this case, Hart and Johnson manage to strike a fun balance between selling the characters while also playing into their superstardom and making the most of their larger than life personas, especially Johnson.
No one’s seen Bob since that mortifying high school prank, so when he comes back to town for the big reunion and asks Calvin to grab a drink, Calvin sees no problem with it. But then of course, Calvin is shocked to learn that Bob Stone is no longer the chubby kid everyone used to pick on. He’s essentially an action hero. And just think; what would you do if you reconnected with someone who wasn’t the most popular kid in high school and he or she grew up to become something equivalent to The Rock? It’s an inherently amusing scenario and somewhat surprisingly, it never really gets old in the movie.
Rather than run with a straightforward zero to hero approach to the character, the writers make the very smart choice to keep much of Bob’s quirky personality intact. He may look buff and be able to take down a group of thugs singlehandedly, but he wears a fanny pack, loves unicorns and has a really goofy sense of humor that pairs well with Hart’s work as the straight man. But only when Hart keeps Calvin grounded. Most of the time, Hart is the audience’s in, reacting as anyone might to Calvin’s crazy transformation and bizarre behavior. However, like clockwork, every ten minutes or so, he loses control and rolls into these high-pitched rants that don’t have the winning jokes and writing to support them.
The movie also comes close to spiraling out of control with the spy component of the script. Turns out, Bob is right in the middle of some questionable CIA business and he ropes Calvin into it. The scenario pairs well with the role reversal part of the movie, but there’s a mystery element to it that’s so overly complicated and repeats so many of the same beats that it never goes anywhere until the movie attempts to wrap it all up at the end, and at that point, there’s little to no interest in seeing the big reveal.
It’s a familiar studio-scale, broad comedy flaw, as is the lack of authorial expressivity in the directing. This is and probably was always meant to be the Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson show, but there is absolutely no style or flavor to Rawson Marshall Thurber’s visuals whatsoever. But even more problematic is that some of the action coverage and shot composition is noticeably off. It can be very difficult to track some of the fight sequences and most are edited so frenetically, it’s hard to appreciate the choreography. The camerawork in the conversation-driven, one-on-one scenes isn’t on point either. Yes, it’s a challenge to fit Johnson and Hart in the same frame when one is 6’5” and the other is 5’4”, but the way Thurber went about it is just plain old ugly. For example, rather than have Johnson’s chin flapping up and down in the top corner of Hart’s singles, it probably would have been more visually appealing to frame Johnson out of those shots entirely.
These are significant flaws that likely would have sank other films, but it’s nearly impossible to dislike Central Intelligence simply because Hart and Johnson are so radiant in it. Their characters are kind, warm and very entertaining. Plus, Hart and Johnson are clearly having a blast making the movie, and that energy and sheer joy is contagious.