Central Intelligence (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Written by: Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen & Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Kevin Hart, Dwyane Johnson, Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul, Danielle Nicolet & Jason Bateman
Music: Theodore Shapiro & Ludwig Göransson
Release Date: June 29th 2016
Throwbacks to buddy-movies aren’t anything new (heck, just re-read my intro to my review of Shane Black’s ‘The Nice Guys‘ from earlier this year) but in terms of the formula they tended to emphasise a difference of personalities between the two leads. ‘Central Intelligence‘ is taking a much more literal approach as we have Kevin Hart, a fast-talking, small-bodied comedian teaming up with Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson, a charismatic, juggernaut of an action-star. Both actors are also in very different stages of their career with Kevin Hart’s schtick (at least in the movies) starting to wear out its welcome and with “The Rock” being the highest paid actor in Hollywood through sheer force of will.
While some audience members are wondering whether or not teaming up with The Rock can help benefit Kevin Hart’s career, others are wondering whether or not this is a comeback for director Rawson Marshall Thurber who blasted onto the scene with ‘Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story‘ in 2004 but has been relatively quiet in his career since (most recently making headlines for allegedly turning down ‘Ant-Man‘ after Edgar Wright left the Marvel Studios project). Is there enough of a size difference between Kevin Hart and Dwyane Johnson to get a whole movie’s worth of jokes or is there something more to this movie to attract this comedic talent?
In 1996 Calvin Joyner (Hart) is the most popular guy in high school. He’s super smart, super talented, super athletic and he’s is also dating the most popular girl in school; Maggie Johnson (Nicolet). But 20 years later, on the eve of his high school reunion, he finds himself having a mid-life crisis as he works as an accountant and is also in a deteriorating marriage with Maggie. But that changes when Bob Stone (Johnson) shows up who 20 years ago was the unpopular, fat-kid at high school where Calvin was the only person to show him any kindness. Bob, now in the C.I.A., needs Calvin’s help who is trying to stop terrorists from acquiring satellite codes but with Bob’s allegiances in doubt Calvin must help save the world whilst also saving his marriage in the process.
Something to establish right off the bat; the spy-plot at the centre of ‘Central Intelligence‘ is pants. It doesn’t make much sense, is clearly only constructed around set-pieces both action and comedic and is ripped off from countless other spy/espionage films. There’s a germ of an idea hiding in the fact that Bob Stone might not be all that he seems but if you’ve seen ‘Get Smart‘ you’ll know that twist has already been done and that even ‘Central Intelligence‘ wouldn’t get Dwyane Johnson to play that role twice. There’s a twist near the end as to who the true villain of the movie is that might have landed well if we’d actually got an inkling of Bob Stone’s career before the events of the movie and…yeah, the plot itself is a total wash.
The best parts of ‘Central Intelligence‘ take place almost entirely in the first half before the plot has really kicked into high-gear and the comedy is on full display because, believe it or not ‘Central Intelligence‘ has done something incredibly clever with the casting of Kevin Hart and Dwyane Johnson. What the screenplay has done has given Kevin Hart the grounded “straight-man” role and Dwyane Johnson the eccentric, loose-cannon role, effectively flipping the personas of the two actors on their heads. And the results are actually incredibly funny with both actors, especially The Rock, clearly embracing these differing roles. Also the sight of Dwyane Johnson wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon pony on it never ceases to be funny.
And what we find with Kevin Hart in the first half of the movie isn’t the wise-cracking, fast-talking, yelling and screaming man we see in his other films but a more down-to-earth guy who isn’t resentful of his life but disappointed that he’s not fulfilled the boundless potential he thought he had. And while the film is hardly profound in its messaging, it’s endearing to see a visual literalisation through Bob Stone which shows that once you leave high school, the outmoded societal hierarchy found there ceases to mean anything which feels like a message that should be absorbed by high-school students and not the probable audience of an R-rated comedy with a mostly older audience.
But anyway, the laughs come thick and fast through extended improvisational sequences between Hart and Johnson and while the action isn’t shot especially well, it’s fun to see Dwyane Johnson walk through these set-pieces with no difficulty as a badass secret agent. We also have an extended scene with Jason Bateman playing one of Bob’s old bullies at high-school that shows how funny Bateman can be in these sorts of roles and he’s so perfectly cast here.
Then the second half of the movie happens and all that good-will starts to fall apart. As the plot moves forward, Bob Stone starts to lose the idiosyncrasies that made him such a delightful screen-presense and he just becomes The Rock that we’ve seen in dozens of action films like ‘Faster‘, ‘San Andreas‘ etc. As the action ramps-up we see Kevin Hart resorting to the shouting and screaming that people have grown sick of in recent years and the importance of the plot and the real-world stakes at play prevent many jokes from landing effectively. We also have a forced misunderstanding between the two leads which cause them to mistrust each other that is basically resolved off-screen and didn’t impact anything at all.
It’s such a shame because if ‘Central Intelligence‘ had focused more on up-ending expectations of these two leads and taken that into other directions (maybe Bob Stone being an imposter could have been a unique angle to take if handled properly with a redemption arc or something?) or at least making itself less plot and action driven since that doesn’t even remotely play to Rawson Marshall Thurber’s strengths as a comedic director then we could have had something special here. Instead, we have one-half of a great movie and another half of a cookie-cutter, dull, been-there-done-that buddy movie with few selling points. I’ve no doubt the film’s heart was in the right place with its themes of growing up beyond high-school and finding direction and excitement in life but it could have easily been done without making the second half of the movie such a slog to sit through.
It also doesn’t help that the action and the stunts that comprise most of the second half of ‘Central Intelligence‘ don’t push the boat in any way. There’s not a single stunt, action-beat or vehicle crash that hasn’t been done before and while there’s no doubt that Dwyane Johnson is doing a lot of his stunts, it’s obvious when Kevin Hart is using a double which becomes quite distracting at times. The de-aging effects to portray a young Kevin Hart as well as a de-aged and fatten Dwyane Johnson in High School are admirable (especially when you consider how complex it is to turn a 40-something guy with 4% body fat into a fat high schooler) but it’s never especially convincing. It all looks polished for the most part but, in terms of a production, ‘Central Intelligence‘ never rises above the generic action films it’s parodying…it just does the same things that they do.
‘Central Intelligence‘ gets further then it probably should on its smart casting by having Kevin Hart be the straight-man and Dwyane Johnson as the live-wire comic-relief and for the first half of the movie this pairing feels inspired and the comedy feels fresh and well paced. But when the second half comes along the movie just becomes generic, the actors fall into their typical roles and all the uniqueness that made ‘Central Intelligence‘ feel so fresh in the first place steps aside to make way for tired exposition, trite slapstick and lame action beats. The first half is definitely worth viewing and the film will probably make for solid TV, weekday viewing but the rest of the movie dragged it down into mediocrity.
I give ‘Central Intelligence‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 30th Dec 16