Review: Central Intelligence
In a month filled with both huge names like Finding Dory and Batman v Superman and "fresh" films like Me Before You that strive to set themselves apart from their vanilla predecessors, Central Intelligence sits in a quiet corner, filling the role of omnipresent action comedy film. It did well for itself relatively, grossing to date $200 million on a $50 million budget, but is it any good? Or, more importantly, is it any different from the veritable crowd of action comedy films out there?
Mild spoilers follow, but they won't really matter, because:
This is a Performance Piece
From the trailers and the synopsis, one picks up quickly enough that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays the loser kid from high school who's come of age and is now an CIA agent, and Kevin Hart plays the "Most Likely To Succeed" kid who ended up living a plain, non-notable life.
The plot that follows is exactly what you expect of it. Kevin's character, Calvin Joyner, is dissatisfied, shadowed by his own youthful glories, and plays the "normal" role of the duo. Dwayne Johnson plays Robbie Wheirdicht (pronounced Weir-dick), the somewhat eerie, loopy possibly-double-agent who is scarred by his experience of being bullied and humiliated in high school. Calvin is roped into an adventure that he doesn't want, and there's the usual suspects: issues of trust, issues of betrayal in order to return to the status quo. Calvin has to work through a strained marriage in addition to being a fugitive, and Robbie has to overcome his deep-seated insecurities.
We'll look at the plot in a bit more detail, but the main reason why you should watch this is for the performances.
Movie buffs will note a consistency in the roles both Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson play. Kevin Hart usually plays an oppressed character, often led into the plot by circumstances beyond his control. He just wants to do the right thing, usually with family as a key motivation. He is the audience's stand-in, providing over-the-top reactions and freaking out to extraordinary events. Dwayne Johnson, meanwhile, plays the action man, with varying blends of grit and ultimately good nature. Most of his roles see him put both his impressive physique and contagious smile to work.
Motivation- and character-wise, they don't break the pattern in Central Intelligence. But they're a pleasure to watch anyways, and this is the strongest point of the film. Their comedic chemistry has a lot going for it, visuals least of all—the fact that Robbie towers over the short Calvin adds a depth of interaction as the latter rails up at the former—you can tell that both of them are not only in their element, but also have developed the chemistry on set through work, work, work. There's a honed sense coming from their dynamics, that the tension going on and its subsequent relief is all just about right, tempered exactly as desired, and it is a joy to watch and appreciate.
Kevin Hart's character is not too far from his comfort zone; he portrays the weariness of the daily grind very well, and his reactions sit nicely within the lines of funny vs annoying. But Dwayne Johnson's character was given a deliberate tweak, and throughout the film there is the ever-present idea that he may be a couple of dumbbells short of a weights rack due to his trauma. And he plays this excellently, from the way he smiles to his body language, tone of voice, the blankness as he ignores emotional outbursts and stray bullets alike. It's the subtlety, the master's touch of its handling that really won me over, and the tension his character presents is the power source for many of the scenes in the film.
The Plot Tries, I Guess?
Even so, if it were just a collection of outstanding actors, this film would not work. There are moments when it's the sheer promise alone of more Kevin-Dwayne chemistry that keeps one going, because while the plot tries to be innovative, it ultimately falls flat.
Rather than provide a clear-cut big bad, the villain is hinted to be Robbie himself, as a furious CIA chief captures Calvin and explains that they believe Robbie is psychotic. Meanwhile, Robbie insists that the real villain is the Black Badger, a mysterious crook who killed his partner and now wants to buy the codes for nuclear missiles for reasons. The main conflict is Calvin deciding who to trust—the kooky Robbie, whose infatuation of him stems from the fact that Calvin was the only kid to treat him well in high school—or the CIA, who, in addition to not being kooky, periodically threaten his wife and his life to force cooperation. Calvin actually changes sides multiple times, taking action for one side only to give up and help the other, so the plot does move forward, but it's not done in any way particularly noteworthy (is there even a way to do so?).
As the overarching spy plot progresses, more questions are raised than they are clarified. The suspicions of both sides grow deeper, and more potential villains are added into the mix. The penultimate scene where all the possible Black Badgers show up int he same room is almost self-parodying. It would have been brilliant if self-parodying was what it was! Kevin Hart's execution of the reaction—comically confused and panicked—is what saves it from being downright stupid.
There's an almost academic approach to this, as if the writers sat down and said: "Okay, so the main conflict in spy films is usually the matter of trust and betrayal. Let's double that", resulting in a plot line that often tugs at the focus like fingers on a cheek, distorting it and giving it a weird flush that isn't really necessary.
The character arcs fare better, but are still solidly B-tier at best. Calvin's initial marriage conflict is woven in cleverly at the beginning, and makes for an amazing scene in the counselor's office, but there was no way they could keep it up as the story moved away from his home/workplace, so it was simply shoved to the backburner. Robbie's emotional issues are never really uprooted (at least for me), and the path from "frozen with fear" to "instant knockout punch" feels like it skips a few steps, making its resolution an observation rather than a conclusion.
To be clear, their delivery is believable. Calvin's pain shines through in the quiet moments as much as his panic in the frantic ones, and Robbie's obsession with his best friend is like radiation. The man's time as The Rock makes for some serious ability when it comes to projecting confidence. It's just the sequence that lets it down.
And The Rest is Pretty All Right
The soundtrack blends in seamlessly—that is to say, it does what it's meant to do, being simple enough to be unremarkable, and not garish enough to be distracting. The same goes for the cinematography, which has its occasional standout moments between the perfectly serviceable rest of it. The gun fight in the office is a particular example of a high moment, as Calvin scrambles, screams and is carted around in a paper trolley while Robbie, clad in a tight-fitting bright yellow shirt, fires rounds at FBI agents amidst a brightly-lit office background. Moments like these where the key takeaway positively pops are few, but there's enough of them to keep interest.
The action sequences in this movie are good, for something that's not the focus of the movie. It's secondary, but treated well, and it pays off. Quite a few people of considerable status are shot resulting in considerable injury. The willingness of the movie to hurt its key characters (enabled by its rating) makes the stakes and suspense feel real, a gravity needed to keep the patchwork plot together.
The quality of comedy in this movie is definite strong point. I watched some of Kevin Hart's performances to make a comparison, and I can safely say that it is different enough so that those who know his comedy, for better or worse, will get something fresh. For one, a lot of the jokes that land come from their interactions. There's a lot more situational humour that stems from construction, clever humour, and it gives the movie credibility, a sense of quality that you might be surprised to find of "just another of this sort of movie".
And, of course, the cameos are all very nice. Discovering it is part of the fun, so no spoilers for that.
Central Intelligence is like watered dough with Madeira-soaked raisins in it. It could have been cake with a few additions, sure, but at least it's not just regular bread. The great parts are great, but the relatively weak cohesion of its weak parts makes the contrast stand out. Still, what is delicious remains delicious, and Central Intelligence is a fine film for anyone who just wants something funny to watch. For those who want a bit more out of their viewing experience, the acting will give you something to appreciate, and is more memorable than the oddity that is its plot development.
If I had to give it a score, I'd rate it a solid 6.5/10. It won't make you feel like you've wasted your time, it's good for a few laughs, but if you were looking to be inspired or enriched, look elsewhere.