It’s one of the oldest action comedy tricks in the book. Pair a tall, muscle-bound action star with a shorter, smaller comedy star. After all, what’s a clearer signal of comedy than putting two people who represent obvious contrasts in the same frame? Once the visual gag is established, the filmmakers only have to let their stars’ combined strengths power the genres’ demands while their likability carries the rest. In the case of Central Intelligence, the leads are Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – bringing amped up physicality and easy charm to action and adventure all over the place, from big splashy studio fare like the Fast & Furious movies and Hercules to scrappier low-budget eccentricities like Faster or, better yet, Southland Tales – and Kevin Hart – one of the most popular stand-ups working today, and a motor-mouth comedy lead in a constant churn of mostly forgettable fare like Think Like a Man and The Wedding Ringer, with a few pleasant surprises like About Last Night. Who knew that putting them together would bring out the best in both?
Johnson and Hart each started their film careers as scene-stealers, filling bit parts with their own unique brands of charisma, and are consequently best when their bigger roles don’t sand down their individuality. The inspiration of Central Intelligence comes in allowing them each to play to and against type in enjoyable silliness given just enough weight to justify a few explosions. Johnson plays a big, bulky man who is effortlessly intimidating and capable, but with a sly sweetness bubbling through. We learn through an opening flashback (slathered in half-convincing CG de-aging and enlarging) he was a fat kid picked on in high school who now, twenty years later, is a ripped secret agent still carrying pain of that long ago bullying. Hart plays a former classmate, an admired hotshot football player who was the only one not laughing at Johnson’s teenaged humiliation. Now he’s the one feeling dumped on, overlooked at work in what is a boring accounting firm anyway. He wishes his life had more excitement. He’s about to regret that.
Johnson, delightfully dorky with a fanny pack and a wide-eyed eagerness to make a good impression, arrives in town for the class reunion and looks up the one person who was remotely nice to him at the time. Hart, sad and low-energy, agrees to meet him for drinks, and is delighted to have a blast: reminiscing, doing shots, beating up bullies, and riding a motorcycle. Hart has a new friend, but it turns out Johnson’s with the C.I.A., on the run for one reason or another, chased by his colleagues and villains alike, and he needs an accountant he cant trust. This brings out the personalities we’d expect from these men: Johnson turning into the strong man of action and Hart jumping into excited nervous patter. The cleverness comes in intermingling these new modes of behavior with the old. Johnson is an action hero and a shy kid wanting to impress the cool guy, while Hart is a fish out of water relying on some of his old ingratiating high school charm to talk his way out of this jam with no hard feelings.
The plot is the usual bunch of hooey hauled out for an action comedy. There’s a USB drive full of shady bank numbers, a mysterious no-good bad guy mastermind with a code name (The Black Badger), government agents hot on the trail, a handful of menacing black market professionals, and a red ticking clock counting down to the climax. It’s an excuse to invite in actors of the sort it’s always a pleasure to see, with small but enjoyable roles for Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Kumail Nanjiani, and a few choice Big Names who are smartly revealed for big impacts. There’s nothing too terribly surprising about any developments herein (especially if you’re familiar with Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Star Power). The story is strictly pro forma, a sturdy staging area for its lead duo’s combustible combined charisma. They’re terrific fun bouncing off each other, alternately antagonizing and cooperating as they get deeper into a scenario that involves charming banter, slapstick fight sequences, and grave consequences narrowly avoided.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers) is wise to keep the focus tightly on the hugely entertaining interactions between his stars. They make a good team, pushing each other, Johnson proving once more his facility with humor, here the best he’s ever been on the charm offensive, and Hart showing surprising dexterity with the physical requirements of an action effort, especially one that needs him to squirm and shout protests as he flails into accidental assists. One particularly funny scene has him apologizing to two C.I.A. agents by saying he’s as surprised as they were to find you could accidentally pistol whip someone. It helps that screenwriters Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (The Mindy Project) leave plenty of room for amusing personality while still keeping the thriller mechanics moving along tight enough to have little use for the drifting improv sag that infects so many studio comedies these days. (There’s hardly any mean-spiritedness either, a nice change of pace.) It’s brisk, efficient, and has a real contagious charge between its mismatched leads, making for a breezy enjoyable good time.