FILM REVIEW – CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE. With Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Danielle Nicolet, Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul. Written by Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen and Rawson Marshall Thurber. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language. 114 minutes.
All hail Rawson Marshall Thurber! His name is a mouthful, but on the basis of “Dodgeball” (2004), “We’re the Millers” (2013) and now CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, it’s clear he has a special touch as a director. Where Paul Feig (director of the upcoming “Ghostbusters” reboot) sees low comedy as an an opportunity to race to the bottom, Thurber manages to take preposterous situations and turn them into genuinely funny movies. You don’t believe the antics in “Central Intelligence” for a minute, but you’ll probably be laughing too much to notice while it’s going on.
The setup is that Calvin (Kevin Hart) was voted the boy most likely to succeed in high school while Bob (Dwayne Johnson) was a friendless, dumpy kid who was the butt of a humiliating prank that caused him to leave school. Now twenty years, later Bob reaches out to Calvin on Facebook. Disappointed with his life as an accountant–who has just been passed over for a promotion–Calvin is sucked into a battle of spies involving the CIA, terrorists, and the possibility that Bob may actually be a double agent.
As with his earlier films, Thurber gets us to sympathize with the characters. Bob is now so buff that Calvin notes he’s lost 200 pounds and put them all back as muscle. He first appears wearing a unicorn t-shirt. He’s goofy and sweet, even as he’s beating up bad guys, blowing up cars, and telling Calvin how grateful he was for the high school star’s one act of friendship. Johnson continues to impress with his range as an actor, handling the slapstick and cartoonish moments with ease while always keeping us on his side.
As Calvin, Hart also gets to transcend his usual clownishness. He’s very funny here, but he’s also gets to play a character who is disappointed in not fulfiling his ambitions. His scenes with Danielle Nicolet as the high school sweetheart he married lets him demonstrate that there may be an actor struggling to emerge in his career as well. Together Johnson and Hart have an unexpected rapport. Instead of being the hapless nitwit pushed around by Ice Cube in the “Ride Along” movies, there are moments when Hart’s character is rightfully scared and there are moments when he gets to be the grown-up. Filmgoeers with long memories–or an active Netflix queue–may recall Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in “The In-Laws” (1979) exhibiting a similar chemistry in a plot akin to this one.
Best of all, it’s funny, Credit goes to the screenwriters, of course, although Hart’s ad-libs found their way into the movie as well. The movie references and cameo appearances are unexpected and on-target, including Bob’s touching reverence for the Molly Ringwald flick “Sixteen Candles” (1984). “Central Intelligence” is a buddy comedy done right. For a change, there was some intelligence on both sides of the camera.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.