Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson each have had their own unique path to movie stardom. The combination of the diminutive stand-up comedian and the hulking former wrestler is front and center in the action-comedy Central Intelligence, which sees the two as a former high school classmates with Johnson dragging Hart into the world of espionage. It doesn’t take long to see that the two stars have a strong chemistry together. However, it also doesn’t take long to see that they’re trapped in a woefully witless affair, as director Rawson Marshall Thurber takes the unlikely duo and an interesting concept and trudges along from cliché to cliché while hoping Hart and Johnson can carry the whole damned thing.
Central Intelligence begins with the two as seniors getting ready to graduate high school. Overweight and lonely, Robby Wierdich (Johnson manipulated with some creepy CGI over a body double in these earlier scenes) is bullied and set loose naked in a packed gymnasium as Calvin Joyner (Hart), “the Golden Jet,” is being levied with all the accolades for popular and charmed existence. Noticing the wounded looking Robby’s face, Calvin offers the embarrassed teen his letterman jacket, a gesture of kindness that he’d never encountered before. Though the film will flash-forward 20 years, these characters are entirely shaped and trapped by the shadow of their high school experience.
In the present day, Calvin is haunted by the promise that never came to fruition from his high school years. All he has to show for his life is an expansive suburban home, a marriage to his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), and a steady job as an accountant. Calvin’s career is stagnant as he watches former assistants get promoted over him, and his marriage is undergoing a stressful time of marital malaise. Before their upcoming 20-year high school reunion (because everything these characters care about is related to high school), Calvin accepts a friend request from Bob Stone, who turns out to be a reinvented Robby. Not long after the two get together for beers and Calvin allows Bob to stay the night at his place after checking something on the computer for him, CIA Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan) arrives to question Calvin as to Bob’s whereabouts, claiming that Bob is a former CIA agent that killed his partner and is a threat to national security. Now Calvin must figure out if Bob is earnest in trying to unravel a conspiracy to clear his name or if Bob is a madman out to undermine the national interest.
Both Johnson and Hart are game with their characters, with Johnson especially having fun taking on a new dynamic to his persona, but they’re given absolutely nothing to work with. The script credited to Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and director Thurber (based on a story from Barinholtz and Stassen) simply wallows in clichés from each and every available angle. Aside from a few cameos, there’s not a surprise to be found in Central Intelligence as so many of the film’s story beats and jokes seem like they’ve been pulled from countless other bad movies of vastly superior quality. That lacking sense of unpredictability deprives the film of all the goodwill earned by its leads.
Rawson Marshall Thurber tries to show his eye for action in the various set pieces throughout the film, but it’s truly an eye in need of an optometrist. Whether car chases, gun fights, or fist fights, there’s no rhyme or reason to the shots cobbled together in a vain attempt to mimic the chaotic feel of the modern era’s worst aspects of action filmmaking. Yet Thurber doesn’t employ this aesthetic to parody the genre, instead opting for incomprehensibility due to sheer incompetence.
Like this year’s dismal The Do-Over (but better), Central Intelligence dabbles in a feeble attempt at parodying the buddy action film with diminished returns. That overwhelming sense of been-there-done-that which permeates through every scene is incredibly disappointing as its most rote aspects nullify what could’ve been the film’s most interesting aspect – is Bob Stone really crazy? There’s not even a fraction of the manic mispairings that you could expect from a Shane Black script. (Not that I expected Black-level work from the movie, but at least a sense of playfulness that Black brings to the genre of buddy action films.) All Central Intelligence offers is well-worn clichés and an abundance of pop culture references, few of which land. There’s probably not another movie this year that would start out with so much – a solid leading pair and an absurd concept – and return with such little. Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson are better than this, and deserve a vehicle to meet their talents. Central Intelligence squanders their talents, and everything else.