Kevin Hart And Dwayne Johnson Make A Natural Team In ‘Central Intelligence’

In acting, as in life, commitment counts for a lot and few actors understand this as well as Dwayne Johnson. Just by virtue of being Dwayne Johnson — a hulking, comically handsome mountain of muscle — he’s never going to be able to play roles open to a lot of other actors. Dress him up as a nebbish and he’ll still look like The Rock underneath it all. But as anyone who’s followed Johnson’s career as he’s transitioned from wrestling to acting knows, Johnson not only has the charisma to match his size but a willingness to give each character his all. He could get by just showing up, but Johnson’s not one for just showing up.

Take Central Intelligence, Johnson’s latest, an action comedy co-starring Kevin Hart. The film opens in a flashback to 1996 and finds Johnson, his face CGI’d on to someone else’s body, dancing naked in the shower to En Vogue as he plays the obese teenager Robbie Weirdicht. (Say it out loud.) He’s then humiliated by a bunch of bullies who throw him in the middle of the gym in front of the entire school, who’ve assembled to heap praise on Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), a homecoming king, star athlete, master actor, and all-around BMOC. The effects make the scene play a bit like a nightmare descent into the uncanny valley, but the agony on Johnson’s face is real. He conveys the humiliation of a kid who’s never had it easy experiencing a moment that suggests his life is set to get harder still. And he conveys the gratitude he feels when Joyner, a kid from the opposite end of the popularity spectrum, loans him his letterman’s jacket so he can cover himself.

Flash forward 20 years: Joyner’s now an accountant grinding away in a small office in an anonymous building. He’s happily married to his high-school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), but happiness eludes him elsewhere, and with his 20th high-school reunion looming, he’s started to wonder what’s become of the life he imagined for himself. Enter, or re-enter, Robbie Weirdicht, now calling himself Bob Stone. He’s traded fat for muscles and he’s extremely happy to see Calvin. (True, we’ll soon find he’s working a hidden agenda, but the enthusiasm isn’t faked.) Meeting for drinks at a bar in their Maryland hometown, Bob shows up wearing a unicorn shirt and rocking a fanny pack. A lovely waitress can’t keep her hands off him and he wows the bar by beating up some tough guys looking for a fight, but he’d rather explain his shirt to Calvin — he’s really “into ‘corns” — and catch up while geeking out to ’90s songs.

That’s Central Intelligence‘s best, and most poignant joke: That despite growing up to look like Dwayne Johnson, Bob is still just a dorky kid inside. (Other action stars would wink to let the audience know that they’re much cooler than this sort of character but that doesn’t seem to bother Johnson.) That remains true even after Calvin gets drawn into the dangerous world where Bob lives after he helps his old classmate hack into an auction site dealing in state secrets. Yet when the CIA, led by the no-nonsense Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan), shows up looking for Bob and calling him a traitor, Calvin’s not sure who to believe.

Co-written by The Mindy Project‘s Ike Barinholtz, his writing partner David Stassen, and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers), Central Intelligence plays a bit like a cross between Spy and Romy and Michelle‘s High School Reunion, mixing loud, busy action scenes with moments of buddy comedy between Johnson and Hart. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking here. The action is cartoony and mostly bloodless, which feels right, and the jokes are more competent than inspired. But Hart and Johnson are an inspired and charming pairing. Just seeing them standing next to each other makes for a natural site gag and they play off each other nicely, with Hart dialing back the volume a bit to play straight man to Johnson without sacrificing any laughs in the process.

Sincerity helps, too. Though there’s nothing particularly complex about the way it handles the subject, Central Intelligence never forgets that, for all the rapid-fire quips and flying bullets, it’s a movie about bullying and the way childhood trauma can stretch deep into adulthood. Throw in some surprise cameos — including one that had the audience I saw this with gasping in delight — and it all adds up to the sort of breezy, undemanding comedy that fits nicely into the summer months, and plays beautifully in endless cable repeats. It commits to its silliness but, following Johnson’s lead, it takes its characters, silliness and all, seriously, worrying about Bob’s feelings and Calvin’s early-onset mid-life crisis. In other words, it commits, and that makes a difference.