The pitch for Central Intelligence must have lasted twenty seconds, if that. Its premise is simple: two immensely popular actors, one big and one small, are buddies in an action comedy. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber and his screenwriters know this basic idea dates all the way back to Abbot and Costello, so they also trust the natural charisma of their leads. Central Intelligence has that, along with some inventive comic situations, but what elevates the premise above its quick summary is how recognizable angst informs the characters. Thurber requires his leads to act, developing semi-plausible characters, and so a human component informs all the slapstick.
It is 1996, and Calvin (Kevin Hart) is the most popular student in his graduating class. He receives the “most likely to succeed” award in an assembly, and his acceptance is cut short by a cruel prank: some bullies drag their overweight, naked classmate Robert from the showers into the basketball court. Calvin shows his classmate some basic decency, and the gesture leaves a lasting impression.
Now working as an accountant, Calvin worries about his twenty-year reunion because he thinks did not fulfill the award he received. Robert reaches out to Calvin the night before the reunion, suggesting they get drinks, and somehow he has become Bob (Dwayne Johnson), who is all muscles and a perfect jawline. Bob is genuinely happy to see Calvin, hanging on his every word, but Bob also has an ulterior motive: he is a CIA agent, and Calvin’s accounting is the key to saving the free world.
I couldn’t tell you the specifics of the plot Bob and Calvin uncover, and I doubt Calvin could, either. Central Intelligence uses spy craft as an excuse for escapes, chases, and fight scenes. Thurber films them with wit, using simple props as an opportunity for comic invention, so he finds laughs in between explosions and other action tropes. Hart has the easier role: he is a frightened everyman, the sort constantly whines he wants to go home, and sometimes Hart’s riffing lasts slightly longer than the scene requires.
The bigger surprise – and the best part of the movie – is Johnson’s performance. Bob is not the badass archetype we have seen in films like The Rundown or the Fast and Furious franchise. He’s an overeager dork, the sort who latches onto kindness because he lacks friends or self-esteem. The script, co-written by Thurber along with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, forces Johnson to be deeply uncool. He uses outdated references, and Johnson’s expressive eyes hint at yearning, as well as a sense of pain. Even when Bob dishes out beatings or goes undercover – which is often – there is an awkwardness to his movement so that we never feel he is confident, collected. Johnson may not ever win an Academy Award, but like his predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, he uses his limits as an actor to his advantage. For a man with Johnson’s physique, it is no small task to get us to pity his character, and he pulls it off.
Central Intelligence as its best when Hart and Johnson share the screen. The arc of their friendship hits all the right beats – including moments of resentment, surprise, empathy – and the shifts are always organic. Their scenes are funny, too, which are based on mutual trust and respect. When Calvin flails around, barely containing his fear, Bob speaks with calm, borderline creepy authority. Amy Ryan, Jason Bateman, and Aaron Paul are in the supporting cast, and they correctly make no attempt to join the fun. Calvin and Bob’s comic frustration is borne out of their pain, adding an irony to the danger of their situation.
No one ever gets over their adolescence. That’s why Bob can handle himself in a fight, and his bully makes him feel like a weakling. That’s why Calvin resents his youthful success, and feels like his accounting job is a prison. Central Intelligence ends with the high school reunion, as it must, and Thurber sidesteps clichés by resolving them brusquely (or with a punch). The adventures of Calvin and Bob may not be enough to sustain a franchise, or spawn sequels. But Hart and Johnson are a natural fit, and studios executives would be smart to trust their instincts, finding more excuses for the pair to play off each other. “Hart and Johnson” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?