Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Central Intelligence is an entertaining trifle, a happy-go-lucky spy comedy that generates tremendous chemistry from its actors and doesn’t do too much heavy-lifting. The screenplay by Thurber, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen isn’t revolutionary in the slightest, but it does contain just enough retro fluff to overcome its over-plotted tendencies.
Like most modern comedies, there is an excess of stuff in Central Intelligence and that leads to problems with overall length and consistency. Thurber grants a pile of story strands and just has to wrap them all up, which leads to, among other things, an abundance of care with the movie’s high school reunion mythology.
Kevin Hart stars as Calvin Joyner. He was the most popular kid in high school, but he’s now living as a forensic accountant. He married his high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet) and is passed over for a major promotion. Things take a big turn when unicorn aficionado Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson) contacts him. Stone, formerly known as the bullied Robbie Wierdicht in high school, has changed.
Joyner meets up with Stone and is shocked to find the formerly plump Robbie transformed into a buff specimen with ass-kicking skills. Joyner is also shocked to find himself in the midst of a flummoxing plot involving the CIA, some double-crossing and a pile of agents.
Make no mistake, there are simpler ways to go about it. Thurber’s movie is not exactly lean and mean and the use of an extensive prologue sequence, complete with CGI-rendered fat suit for Johnson, sets things off on a difficult but oddly amusing foot.
In fairness, the culture of high school is the framework under which Central Intelligence operates. The story is essentially an extended social media meme about how the kid that was bullied changed into a big, burly machine and how the kid that did the bullying never changed much.
Thurber doesn’t toy with the formula and things are very safe. Hart’s character, for instance, was the only kid in school who was nice to Robbie. That lays out a kind of sweet foundation for the two as their adult characters come home to roost. It also details how things can change. Joyner’s popularity, a creation of a different kind of transformation, hasn’t exactly panned out.
Now, none of this is radical. Countless films have glued themselves to the mentality of everlasting high school and Central Intelligence makes no bones about its central appeal. It even ends things with a daunting high school reunion, packing on a situation only made necessary by the plot’s recurrent mentions of what Robbie went through and how he still requires some form of restitution.
The actual espionage plot is but a backdrop for this conceit, so it doesn’t matter who the Black Badger is or what’s going on with the weapons or why Amy Ryan’s character is breaking the Rock’s fingers. The details don’t matter, even when the storyline becomes so full of double-crosses and question marks that it threatens to buckle.
What matters are the characters and how they move on or refuse to move on from the halcyon days of En Vogue’s “Never Gonna Get It.” And that’s where Central Intelligence all comes back to chemistry. Hart and Johnson have an awful lot of it and they’re able to pull through the routine plot with a geniality seldom seen in modern comedies. They make this outing enjoyable – flaws and all.