Thursday, June 23, 2016
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2016)
Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart) was a star athlete, student, and all-around big man on campus at Central High School, but as his twentieth reunion approaches in CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, he feels like his best days were when he was a teenager. Calvin married his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) and is gainfully employed as an accountant, so it’s not like he’s a failure by any means; he just hasn’t done anything that would seem to fulfill being voted “most likely to succeed” by his classmates.
Calvin’s self-esteem gets a major boost when he meets up with Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson), another class of 1996 member who thinks the world of him. During a high school assembly Calvin helped Bob, then going by his eminently mockable given name Robbie Weirdicht, preserve some dignity when he was the victim of a cruel prank. Beyond the name change, Bob has since undergone a major transformation. The once-tubby teen has traded the flab for muscle so that he looks like a beefy action figure in the flesh.
After a fun night of reminiscing Bob asks Calvin to check some accounts he’s been having trouble with. The next morning three CIA agents, led by Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan), appear at Calvin’s front door looking for Bob, who they claim is a government operative gone rogue. When Bob turns up at Calvin’s workplace, he assures him that he’s really a good guy trying to stop terrorists from exchanging United States satellite codes. Calvin doesn’t want any part of this but finds himself dragged into it anyway.
When describing action comedies, charming isn’t the first word that typically comes to mind, although it suits CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE to a T. This very funny buddy movie is surprisingly sweet thanks in large part to Johnson. He looks like a superhuman warrior but portrays the character like a sensitive teenager on the inside. Bob’s reshaping of his body has not altered his tender soul. Johnson brings so much joy and enthusiasm in playing Bob like a child eager to win Calvin’s approval and show him what he can do. The humor stems from the disconnect between this hulking specimen of masculinity and his unabashed love of unicorns, SIXTEEN CANDLES, and 1990s girl groups, yet the film never judges him as being less manly because of his interests. Bob Stone is the character’s best self, and Johnson is a hoot as Bob demonstrates the confidence he’s gained since the most humiliating moment of his life.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn’t use the size difference between Johnson and Hart for comedy. Instead he relies upon the chemistry the two have playing off one another. Calvin is a reluctant participant when Bob and the CIA place him in uncomfortable situations. Hart milks Calvin’s confusion and mounting exasperation for all it’s worth, resisting in the limited ways available to him.
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE doesn’t lack action sequences, but the showcase moments tend to be small and silly, like when a slap fight breaks out when Calvin and Bob role-play as husband and wife or when Calvin is forced to riff to distract an airport security guard while Bob steals a plane. This remarkably good-natured film lets its stars trade on their likability and is all the stronger for it.