The most surprising thing about the new buddy action-comedy Central Intelligence is the sight of Kevin Hart playing straight man to another actor’s antics. In previous comedies, Hart has been the pint-sized, fast-talking dynamo at the center of the action. Even in movies where he’s the guy in over his head — like the Ride Along series, where he plays foolhardy novice to Ice Cube’s veteran cop — Hart remains the center of comic attention, the one who generates most of the laughs. But in Central Intelligence, he’s initially subdued and reactive as Calvin Joyner, an accountant whose no-drama life is shaken up by the sudden reappearance of his old school pal Robert Whierdicht (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a former fat kid who, after years of being mercilessly bullied, has reinvented himself as a comically buff rogue CIA agent named Bob Stone.
Hart might not be his usual motormouthed self this time, but he’s still got that edge of cynicism and snark: There’s always been a kind of veiled contempt in his performances. And this time, playing a former high-school hotshot whose life hasn’t turned out the way he expected, he gets not only some real motivation to put behind that subtle bitterness, but a chance to develop it over the course of a film — so that it becomes less about shtick and more about the character’s psychology. The Rock, who always seems to be a happy warrior in his movies, playfully undercuts his persona as well: Despite being a lethal killer drowning in his own muscles, Bob Stone is also a sincere, wide-eyed normie fond of fanny packs, unicorns and Molly Ringwald movies. So here, as Kevin Hart’s pissiness becomes ordinary, the Rock’s earnestness becomes weird.
The confrontations and fights and chases in Central Intelligence are incoherent and slapdash as action scenes, but they’re often hilarious as comic set pieces. When Bob the badass beats down and shoots people, it’s mostly generic and confusing. But when the reluctant Calvin takes over — accidentally kicking the shit out of CIA agents with his flailing arms, or finding himself making an unwitting getaway with his possibly traitorous pal — the energy picks up.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber understands that the use of space is crucial to physical comedy: He’ll cleverly divert our attention to one part of the frame, then surprise us with a sight gag elsewhere in the shot. He also understands the inherent humor in the physical difference between Hart and the Rock: The latter can make anything look small, but when he stands next to his diminutive and energetic co-star, they look like a science experiment gone wrong. (Could a remake of Twins starring these two be far behind?)
The plot is fairly disposable, involving Bob getting in touch with Calvin on the eve of their high school reunion, then whisking him away in pursuit of a mysterious international arms dealer code-named the Black Badger. (Bob needs Calvin’s accounting skills, see.) But a group of CIA agents (led by an energetic Amy Ryan) are after Bob, convinced that he's the Black Badger himself. That puts Calvin in the tough position of having to decide whether his cuddly, jacked friend might actually be a sociopathic murderer in disguise. The setup works because the Rock’s performance is just peculiar enough to keep us guessing and Hart proves adept at get-me-out-of-here bewilderment.
The real danger with these types of buddy comedies is the over-reliance on predictable gags and comic tics. Audiences want to see Kevin Hart being Kevin Hart, and they want to see the Rock being the Rock, but they don’t want to be too disturbed or challenged. So within that framework, a smart director has to figure out how to play with the elements, to bring spontaneity and surprise without completely upending expectations. Central Intelligence won’t blow you out of the theater, but you might be surprised at how well it works — how genuinely funny it is — given the familiarity of this concept.