THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Central Intelligence has a plot that's similar to Arthur Hiller's 1979 comedy classic The In-Laws and a style of humor reminiscent of '80s buddy-cop pictures like Running Scared. Those movies were flat-out fun, and so is this one. The key in these cases is always to have strong casting. Put the right actors together and the audience will forget plot elements that don't add up or are insufficiently explained. They'll simply sit back, enjoy the ride, and – most importantly – laugh. Central Intelligence understands this and goes out of its way to maximize the considerable assets of its two stars. It is the very definition of a crowd-pleaser.
The movie opens with a prologue set in 1996. An obese high school student, Robert Weirdicht (Dwayne Johnson), is made the victim of a cruel senior prank. The only one who stands up for him is the most popular kid in class, Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart). Twenty years later, Calvin is a married accountant lamenting the fact that he never lived up to the “Most Likely to Succeed” title he earned in school. Out of the blue, he is contacted by Robert, who now goes by the name of Bob Stone. Bob is no longer fat, he's almost impossibly muscular. He's also a CIA agent who may have gone rogue after killing his partner. At least that's what agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan) tells Calvin after Bob drags him into an international espionage case. Unsure which of them to trust, Calvin simply tries to stay alive amid increasingly dangerous and confusing situations he wants no part of.
Never mind the plot. Everything involving the mission Bob claims to be on is relatively unimportant. It's your run-of-the-mill thing involving a mystery bad guy who may be trying to use technology to take over the world. Nothing that hasn't been done a million times before. It exists mainly to set up the primary comedic idea, which is that a mild-mannered guy is dragged against his will into life-threatening scenarios he cannot understand and is not equipped to deal with, at the hands of a guy who may or may not be honest. Try to go any deeper than that and you come up empty-handed.
What matters most to Central Intelligence is the character interactions. On this count, it hits a home run. The screenplay, by Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (The Mindy Project) and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We're the Millers), takes the time to really develop Calvin and Bob so that we care about them, even if we don't necessarily care about the terrorist act they're trying to prevent. Both men have their individual issues – Calvin feels like a failure, Bob still hasn't gotten over his adolescent humiliation – and those things are tested by the adventure in which they find themselves. Especially witty is the fact that big, muscular Bob still has an edge of dork to him. He carries a fanny pack, loves the ending of Sixteen Candles, and continues to look up to (the much shorter) Calvin. Even if very opposite on the surface, the men have complimentary problems, which allows them to help each other. Because of its emphasis on character, Central Intelligence is much better written than many of the action-comedies released these days.
Hart and Johnson work up comic chemistry together that can only be described as “magic.” Although not two actors one would expect to see paired up onscreen, their styles mesh perfectly. Hart is, in many respects, the straight man here, but he plays Calvin's desperation so well that he earns big laughs anyway. The actor makes his performance both verbal and physical, so that we not only hear how Calvin reacts to everything around him, we see it too. Johnson, meanwhile, is a pure revelation. He's been good in several other films. He has not, however, had a role that allows him to do such varied comedy. Bob is all kinds of contradictions. He's insecure, yet highly skilled. He's handsome and muscular, but also in possession of nerdy tendencies. He can fight off multiple bad guys at once or wax nostalgic about Molly Ringwald kissing a boy in an '80s teen movie. Johnson performs the role with such gusto that almost everything he does is hilarious. He and Hart set one another up for jokes, play off each other's energy, and work in unison to make the punchlines effective as can be.
Central Intelligence additionally contains two killer cameos from much-loved actors, both of whom come in and slay during their short screen time. Still, this show belongs to Hart and Johnson – two immensely likable performers who understand that teamwork is essential to making good comedy. The espionage story is weak. The story of the unlikely friendship that develops between Calvin and Bob, on the other hand, makes for two hours of pure, wonderfully silly entertainment.
( out of four)
Central Intelligence comes to DVD and Blu-ray on September 27. The Blu-ray has an impressive assortment of features, including an unrated cut that runs nine minutes longer. (The theatrical cut is also included.) Director Rawson Marshall Thurber and editor Mike Sale provide a full-length audio commentary, as well.
There are more than an hour's worth of alternate scenes (both rated and unrated), plus a gag reel and a line-o-rama of joke variations. Obviously, given Hart's improvisational skills, there's some funny stuff here. Johnson proves adept at the format, too. A gag reel continues to show off the stars' chemistry as they crack each other up on set.
"Dance Off" looks at the special effects used to put Johnson's face on an overweight actor's body for a key flashback sequence, then shows the two of them staging a dance battle during the filming of the movie's finale. Finally, there's "Couch Time Lapse," a 40-second piece detailing how a clever visual joke was staged without edits or visual effects.
Central Intelligence is an often hilarious movie, and the disc's bonus features feel totally in line with its vibe.
Central Intelligence is rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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