It doesn't matter who Kevin Hart is paired with it's always going to be a comedy of mismatched partners. Whether it's Ice Cube, Will Ferrell, Josh Gad, or whoever, all of Hart's buddy comedies have a certain familiar feel to them. You've seen one you've seen them all, right? Well, not exactly, not when you team Hart up with the one guy who has reinvigorated more movies and carried more franchises on his shoulders than anybody: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Central Intelligence puts this unlikely pair together and the result is comedy gold that totally flips the typical Hart formula.
Some may not believe this but Johnson is one of the best actors working today. Period. Is there anything he's proven incapable of? His performance in Central Intelligence calls him to steal the spotlight away from Hart, no small feat, by playing a character that is both physically intimidating and emotionally vulnerable like a bullied schoolkid. Turns out that's exactly who his character, the unfortunately-named Robert Whierdicht aka "Fat Rob", proves to be. We're introduced to him as an overweight, afro-headed teen singing En Vogue nude in the shower, only to be jumped by a bunch of bullies and humiliated in front of the entire senior class. The only one to help him out was the coolest kid in school, Calvin "Golden Jet" Joyner (Hart), who everyone thought was destined for greatness.
That's not how things turned out, though. Twenty years later and Calvin is working a boring accountant job, and hating every minute of it. It's starting to affect his marriage to high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet), who thinks they need some couples therapy. But all Calvin really needs is a friend, just as "Fat Rob" needed one years earlier. Enter Bob Stone, who offers an emoji-laden invite to hang out moments after Calvin accepts his Facebook friend request. It turns out that Bob is actually Rob, who has transformed himself into a chiseled Hercules.
As played by Johnson, Bob is one of the most unique and interesting characters in comedy history. He's totally against the masculine He-Man we expect out of Johnson, or at least half of the time he is. Sporting an emasculating fanny pack and My Little Pony t-shirt, Bob is still every bit the dork he was in high school. He's also a devoted worshipper of Calvin's, and can barely hide his glee at being reunited with the school legend. But if you piss Bob off, like a few unfortunate guys do in a bar, well that's when he gets all medieval and resembles his Agent Hobbs character from Fast & Furious.
This Jekyll & Hyde persona thrusts Johnson into the spotlight and Hart into the straight-man role. Calvin is dragged, literally kicking and screaming, through a convoluted plot involving the CIA (led by a tenacious Amy Ryan) and a mysterious terrorist known as "the Black Badger". There's some question about the villain's true identity, and even bigger questions about Bob's sanity. Would any rational guy wear that many knitted vests? The plot is pretty much a mess and clearly only there so that Johnson can barrel through a handful of reasonably well-staged action sequences while Hart screams in the background.
“You’re like a snack-sized Denzel!” Bob enthusiastically fails to cheer up his beleaguered hero.
The oil and water pairing of Johnson and Hart scores nearly every time, though. Story beats that seem lame on the surface; like Bob posing as Calvin's marriage counselor, score big laughs. It's Johnson's utter commitment to such a silly role that does it, along with Hart's constant state of bewilderment. They're joined by a handful of truly surprising cameos better left unspoiled, two of which payoff huge in the final act. Or better put, final "acts" because it does seem that director Rawson Marshall Thurber and co-writer Ike Barinholtz (recently seen in Neighbors 2) struggle to bring the story to a close, which negates some of the emotional impact. Then again it's totally understandable they wouldn't want to bring an end to Bob and Calvin's escapades. The audience won't want it to end, either, but it's okay because all they'll need to do is wait for the inevitable and much-deserved sequel.
Rating: 4 out of 5