Putting Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in a movie together and letting them carry a comedy really isn’t a bad plan. It would have been rather easy for Central Intelligence to rely on the charm of its two stars and just let them riff while progressing through a pretense of a story.
Fortunately, director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball), with writers Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, don’t rely solely on the cultural personas of their two headliners for a fun action comedy. There is actually a plotline here, though it gets unnecessarily complicated in an attempt to keep the audience (and Hart’s character) uncertain as to what and who to believe. And the story includes some underlying themes that will resonate with people who can surely relate in one form or another.
If you’ve seen the trailers and commercials for Central Intelligence, you know the main premise is a former fat kid growing up to become a stud CIA agent and recruits his old high school classmate into his latest mission. That’s a suitable plot synopsis, and the movie could have just settled for Big Johnson and Little Hart teaming up to save the world, collected the money, hope for a sequel and move on to the next thing. Yet the story tries to go a little bit deeper with its characters. That might not work for some people, who just want to see The Rock and Kevin Hart kick ass and make jokes. But I think it’s a more interesting film for that effort.
The bigger backdrop for the story is a 20-year high school reunion. Calvin Joyner (Hart) is the former most popular kid in school. He was the homecoming king, played all the sports, was in all the clubs, and had the prettiest girl in the class as his girlfriend. Two decades later, Calvin is going through a mid-life crisis, facing the reality that his life didn’t exactly go in the direction he thought it would when he was 18 years old and anything and everything seemed possible. Though he’s a moderately successful accountant whose career has stalled, it suddenly doesn’t feel like enough.
Enter Bob Stone (Johnson), who finds Calvin on Facebook, presumably looking to connect before the big reunion. Maybe that’s the true hidden message of Central Intelligence: Watch out for the friend requests you accept! Don’t just click “Confirm” to be a nice guy. Calvin has no idea who is trying to connect, until Bob reveals he’s Robbie Weirdicht, the former fat kid who was humilated in front of the entire senior class on the last day of school. He remembers Calvin being the one guy to show some compassion and kindness toward him on what was presumably the worst day of his life.
That gets to the deeper anti-bullying theme of the movie. Despite his brickhouse physique and action hero capabilities, Bob is still scarred by getting picked on in high school just because he was fat and different. No, maybe he hasn’t really changed. Maybe none of us do, despite circumstances and responsibilities becoming different. But are we defined by what we were — or thought we’d be — during those four years before going to college and/or entering the real world? Or are those days irrelevant to the person we eventually become?
However, if you’d rather not think about your high school days or all of this sounds a bit too sentimental, Central Intelligence does still bring the spy action. Bob needs Calvin’s talent with numbers to help him get to secret satellite codes that are being auctioned to the highest criminal bidder. Or is he a delusional rogue agent reaching out to the guy he idolized in high school, as Bob’s former colleague (played by Amy Ryan, who really needs to be in more TV shows, movies and everything on a screen) tells Calvin?
The idea that Bob might be crazy is given credibility by his inherent dorkiness, the side of himself that he just can’t hide no matter how much he’s worked out and pumped up over the past 20 years. Then there’s the vulnerable side, who’s still the fat kid terrified of his high school bullies. But maybe that made something snap in his brain over the past 20 years. That’s what makes Johnson so ideal for this role. Or the role was ideally suited for Johnson.
It’s difficult to imagine any other current action star being able to believably pull off being an elite secret agent/action hero who loves unicorns, fanny packs, jorts and the movie Sixteen Candles. Actually, is there anyone who can be both a hulking action star and cuddly teddy bear like Johnson? (Sit down, Vin Diesel. Not a chance, Jason Statham. OK, maybe Channing Tatum, but he doesn’t provide the same hulking physical presence. Johnson muscled him off the screen in G.I. Joe: Retaliation.) And maybe no one else can play the straight man while pointing out how ridiculous these circumstances are like Hart can.
These two make a great pair, and make Central Intelligence worth seeing — especially if you need to get away from super-serious blockbusters and animated fare for kids, and just want an action movie with laughs that gives you a fun two hours. The high school stuff might prevent this from being total escape, but Johnson and Hart (along with some excellent cameo appearances for their grown-up high school classmates) keep it fun. Maybe we’ll get a sequel or two from this pairing too. As Bob might say, that would be totally boss.