I’m not quite sure how to approach Central Intelligence. It’s a peculiar film in that it misses several of its marks, yet somehow manages to overcome its shortcomings just enough to make it worth seeing. It’s billed as a sort of awkward buddy-action movie, and I suppose it is that — it’s got some fun action scenes, though it doesn’t depend on them, and as a comedy, sometimes the jokes are a bit too broad and lowbrow. But what it really is, is an oddly charming story about fitting in and being yourself, a surprisingly sweet tale about living through your past and coming to grips with your present. I know, I’m surprised at that too.
As a comedy, it’s funny, though not uproariously so, which is a bit of a surprise given the comic chops of its leads Dwayne Johnson — as overeager, borderline stalker-y CIA Agent Bob Stone (known in his past life as Robbie Weirdicht, a joyful, cruelly bullied, overweight geek in high school) — and Kevin Hart as Calvin Joyner, an accountant who feels that he’s been on a downward slide since his days as a high school success story. As an action movie, it’s dialed back quite a bit from conventional summer action fare. That’s perhaps its biggest weakness — it doesn’t take full advantage of either of those genres, instead settling comfortably, or occasionally unremarkably, in the middle.
The film’s strongest merits are the rapport between Johnson and Hart, and the peculiarly affecting message it delivers. Essentially, Johnson’s Bob was horrendously bullied in high school, but worked his ass off to become Dwayne Johnson-like, eventually becoming a highly admired CIA agent, if a somewhat weird one. He loves unicorns, hates bullies, and can’t shake the treatment he received in high school while still remembering Joyner’s kindness with an almost uncomfortable nostalgia. He rekindles a friendship that was never really there, and then drafts Hart into his mission, saving the world from terrorists seeking codes for some other gobbledygook. That part doesn’t really matter. Instead, it’s the way Johnson and Hart play off each other that makes the briskly-paced plot work best. Johnson does a solid job playing the overly-eager, overly-earnest Bob, an unrelenting badass with a seriously soft side, while Hart plays Calvin as a high-strung neurotic who has a sort of weary patience and affection for Bob’s obsessive nuttiness. Basically, they’re both playing versions of themselves, and it works well. But there’s a remarkable anti-bullying message tied in there, and a bright-eyed exuberance that is hard not to enjoy on a basic human level, even as bullets are flying and jokes are landing (or not landing, as happens occasionally). It’s that exuberance and enthusiasm, both in the plot and the leads, that ultimately makes the film its most enjoyable.
There’s a solid supporting cast floating around them, too — Amy Ryan as a by-the-book CIA agent who thinks Bob’s gone rogue, Danielle Nicolet as Joyner’s tough-but-sweet wife, and a couple of fun cameos that elevate the story quite a bit. Director Rawson Thurber does a good job of creating fun rapports in the more character-driven scenes, which is no surprise given his success with films like We’re The Millers and Dodgeball. And while the action is (perhaps thankfully) not Michael Bay-esque, it’s just zippy enough, with enough derring do and humor to keep us interested.
Central Intelligence is never going to have the quotability of Dodgeball or the outright bonkers insanity of We’re The Millers. As I mentioned, it’s funny but not hilarious and while its hijinks are certainly goofy, it’s not quite as inspired as it sometimes seems to want to be. But that’s OK in the end. Johnson and Hart are the real story here, and they’re goddamn fun to watch together, each playing off the other’s strengths with remarkable and enjoyable charisma and comedic charm (and it’s always nice to see Johnson using both his physicality as well as his natural comedic chops to full advantage). It’s not blockbuster fare, but it’s a solid, sweet flick that, even when it slips, still manages not to fall too hard.