Central Intelligence

3.5 Stars

Good chemistry can carry an otherwise mediocre film pretty far. Great chemistry – like the chemistry between Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson – can make a film feel greater than the sum of its parts. Thanks not only to that chemistry, but a script with a few nice twists and a decision to have both Hart and Johnson play a bit against type, Central Intelligence is a surprisingly effective comedy that will leave audiences wanting more.

Calvin (Hart), a low-level accountant, isn’t looking forward to his 20-year high school reunion. Outside of marrying his high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet), this all-around high school king (most popular, most athletic, smartest) has failed to live up to being voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Robby (Johnson) didn’t fare nearly as well in high school – geeky and overweight, Robby was the target of a cruel prank near the end of senior year that made him the butt of every other senior, with only Calvin showing him any kindness during the incident. Two decades later, a slimmed-down and ridiculously ripped Robby, now known as Bob, pops back up, eager to reconnect with Calvin.

Of course, there’s more to Bob’s reappearance. He’s now a rogue CIA agent who needs Calvin’s accounting skills to track down some information. Eventually, he’ll drag Calvin into a web of deceit and intrigue, as the two are forced to run from the CIA, which suspects Bob of murdering his partner.

In a lesser comedy, the film would base most of its jokes on things like the height difference between Hart and Johnson (which makes the few times the film goes there – like with Bob squeezing into a pair of Calvin’s pajamas – pretty hilarious). Or they’d have Hart play spastic and Johnson play cool. Thankfully, Central Intelligence flips the personalities. Hart plays the more collected straight man for once, while Johnson is the crazier and more eccentric personality, garnering most of the laughs in the process.

It turns out to be a genius move. Hart plays smart surprisingly well, rarely unleashing his more manic personality – and when it is unleashed, it makes it all the more effective. Johnson, for his part, still gets to play the tough guy, but it’s a clear cover for the sensitive kid who was traumatized in high school. The fact that Bob sports a unicorn t-shirt and carries his spy gear in a fanny pack is just delightful.

It also helps that Calvin and Bob clearly like each other. Bob admires Calvin based on their high school experiences, especially that moment where Calvin offered him some kindness; Calvin, meanwhile, has a deep respect for the ways Bob’s improved himself in life. They even call each other things that could sound like insults (“You’re like a snack-size Denzel!”) if it wasn’t clear that they respect each other.

It would be enough for the film to just coast on this pair, but Central Intelligence also has a strong supporting cast. Amy Ryan plays the CIA officer leading the investigation against Bob, and her cool approach makes her a worthy adversary. Jason Bateman shows up for a scene as Bob’s high school nemesis, delivering a comic take on his character from The Gift. A few other famous actors pop up for cameos that add some fun into the proceedings as well.

Central Intelligence doesn’t always work, mind you. The action scenes are workmanlike at best, and given the events of last weekend, watching an office become riddled with bullets isn’t exactly a welcome sight. That’s more bad timing than anything, though. Once these handful of scenes are over, though, the movie goes back for the laughs. And there, Central Intelligence knows what it’s doing.

Central Intelligence • Rating: PG-13 (for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language) • Runtime: 114 minutes • Genre: Comedy • Cast: Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen • Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber • Writers: Ike Barinholtz, Dave Stassen, Rawson Marshall Thurber • Distributor: Warner Bros.
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