Then he gets a Facebook friend request from Robby, now going by the nondescript “Bob Stone” and looking like, well, The Rock. It’s a gloriously weird character, and performance – beneath his bulging muscles and angular features, he’s still awkward, kind, and a little bit damaged. He can take out a quartet of bar bullies without breaking a sweat, but he’s still personally clumsy, his notions of social interaction pulled from beer commercials and ‘80s movies. Johnson’s gleefully self-aware, down-for-whatever spirit has made him a talk show and SNL fave, but it’s never been as effectively showcased onscreen as it is here.
Anyway, it turns out Bob is a CIA agent gone rogue, enlisting Calvin’s accounting know-how to either help him capture a nefarious super-criminal (according to him) or to help him make a fortune selling secrets to a nefarious super-criminal (according to his agency boss, played by Amy Ryan, who does the best she can with a nothing role). The screenplay — by Neighbors and Mindy Project co-star Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers) — wisely keeps that question open all the way through, less to keep the audience off balance (I mean, c’mon, the Rock’s not gonna turn out to be the villain) than to keep Hart that way.
It’s a mode he plays well. If the film is littered with the DNA of buddy pictures like Midnight Run, Rush Hour, Bad Company, Bad Boys, 48 HRS., Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix abomination The Do-Over, Johnson’s The Rundown, and Hart’s Ride Alongs, their byplay is closer to the Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor comedies — that is, if Wilder were a bodybuilder (which I realize is a weird mental image). But Hart does what Pryor did in those films, getting laughs out of big beats of fear and confusion, small laughs from off-the-cuff line readings and reactive moments, and keeping just enough potential of danger running underneath to make his own eventual heroism credible. And Thurber does them both the favor of taking their characters seriously, no matter how silly the situation surrounding them – these are men approaching middle age, with real hopes and fears and disappointments that end up coloring the narrative, and driving it. Everyone told Calvin he had greatness in him, and he’s surrendered himself to the notion that they were wrong. But Bob, who idolized Calvin, still sees that greatness. And he isn’t taking no for an answer.
You can pick Central Intelligence apart, if you’re so inclined; it’s too damn long, its supporting characters (particularly its women) are paper-thin, and Thurber rarely manages to put much of a comic spin on its well-worn action sequences. But it’s hard to ding a movie whose leads are working this hard — particularly Johnson, who’s so cheerfully goofy yet gosh-darned genuine that he gives the picture considerably more pathos and sweetness than you’d expect. Sure, it’s junk. But it’s high-spirited, good-natured junk, and its heart is in the right place.
Central Intelligence opens Friday.