Central Intelligence

This action-comedy may boast a dynamic central duo, but maintaining momentum around their amusing antics is much more difficult.
Central Intelligence

If there's one thing a film starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson (San Andreas) and Kevin Hart (Ride Along 2) should boast, it's a sense of fun. You don't match up two movie stars who share soaring popularity levels but diverge when it comes to their physical size and typical on-screen demeanour without wanting to warmly but humorously stress their similarities and differences, after all. Similarly, you shouldn't insert the duo into an action-comedy without endeavouring to find both laughs and thrills in their antics. Indeed, following a clear template, Central Intelligence initially appears geared to follow in the footsteps of the hardly excellent but still enjoyable '80s and '90s odd coupling of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.

Alas, try as they might, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We're the Millers) and co-scribes Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (TV's The Mindy Project) just can't perfect the right combination of elements. In this mix of espionage, amusement, mid-life malaise, and overcoming teenage stigmas, balancing the feature's co-leads is far from challenging, nor is highlighting the actors' respective strengths. Johnson and Hart can both garner giggles easily, particularly when the former is gleefully playing up his goofier tendencies and the latter has channelled is nervy energy into the straight-man role. Instead, it's coming up with a plot that proves more than just an excuse to get the twosome together that's much more difficult, as is maintaining momentum for 107 minutes.

Johnson's Robbie Weirdicht is introduced naked, showering, and singing in his high school locker room at the very same moment Hart's Calvin "The Golden Jet" Joyner is earning the cheers and applause of his teachers and peers. One is a bullied outsider and the other the campus king, with their paths crossing in an incident that leaves Robbie humiliated and Calvin a hero. Cut to twenty years later, as their reunion approaches. Calvin is now an unhappy accountant who has married his childhood sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet, Born Again Virgin) but keeps delaying starting a family, and just missed out on a promotion at work. Robbie has reinvented himself as Bob Stone, a CIA operative trying to track down an arms dealer, branded a traitor by his boss (Amy Ryan, Goosebumps), and in desperate need of a little help with numbers.

The surrounding storyline involving predictable chases and gunfights, and featuring a handful high-profile faces popping up in bit parts, wears thin quickly. Likewise, the movie's attempt at subversion by rendering Johnson awkward and uncool at the outset also proves short-lived the moment he spends more than a few seconds of time with his comic partner in crime. Rather, it's the underlying, offbeat sense of humour that shines brightest — or simply radiates something more than a dull sheen — in Central Intelligence, as embodied by its central casting. Not only making the usual pop culture references, but cannily calling back to Johnson and Hart's own career history as well, the feature's many jokes are as committed to buffoonery as its talent. 

Of course, comedy only works until it doesn't, and the line between endearing and over-extended is razor thin. Thurber wheels out standard directorial choices to match his familiar narrative, and does little to eradicate the film's flimsy, disposable air, or the feeling that it could've been cobbled together from Johnson and Hart's greatest individual hits. And yet, Central Intelligence will likely leave audiences feeling barely enthused by the feature in front of them, but still wanting more. It can't carry an entire movie that doesn't make anything more than a lazy attempt to provide anything else; however pointing the camera Johnson and Hart's way and watching their banter is often as entertaining as it sounds — and a little chemistry can go a long way.

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Central Intelligence
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
USA, 2016, 107 mins

Release date: 30 June
Distributor: Universal
Rated: M


Sarah Ward

Tuesday 5 July, 2016

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay