The Rock Keeps Central Intelligence Aloft

If you’re not keeping up with professional wrestling, you should be. I’m a recent convert and I kinda love it. The WWE is more entertaining than many action-comedy films I’ve seen, including Central Intelligence, which stars WWE Triple Crown Champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and superstar comedian Kevin Hart. I tried to think of Central Intelligence as a 90-minute tag team bout—Johnson and Hart against a so-so script and flat, TV-style direction—but, ultimately, only The Rock was left standing. Hollywood doesn’t have a folding chair big enough to put that guy down.

Johnson is a joy in Central Intelligence. He’s appeared in comedies before, a bunch of them (2008’s Get Smart was my favorite), and he always brings an element of jokiness to his action roles. But in Central Intelligence, he gets to play a role close to his real-life public image—he is funny, personable and geeky, basically the Dave Grohl of action stars. His Bob Stone is a wide-eyed, huggable innocent—he wears a fanny pack, says hokey stuff such as “in good conscience” and loves Sixteen Candles—and Johnson has visible fun playing him. The movie pretty much sinks when the People’s Champion isn’t onscreen.

Kevin Hart is largely used as a straight man, a role to which the funny, intensely physical comic isn’t particularly well-suited. Hart throws his entire physical self into his comedy, and his best bits in Central Intelligence find him doing just that—pistol-whipping a man by accident, being pushed around by Johnson in a mail cart like a hysterical toddler. You can catch a glimpse of the role he could have had in the outtakes that appear before the end credits; the unabashed good fun Hart and Johnson have goofing off between takes shows that the two have a terrific comic chemistry. Hopefully, they’ll get another shot at doing the buddy movie thing.

It’s just that Central Intelligence is … not much. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber simply isn’t a good visual stylist, which is fine if you’re making low-key comedies like We’re the Millers and Dodgeball, but if you’re making a movie about a James Bond-style action hero, you can’t rely on TV-like scenery and flat camera setups. Thurber borrows thematic elements from a dozen other movies, from Grosse Pointe Blank to The Matador to the Bourne franchise, but he doesn’t make full use of the opportunities afforded by that kind of theft. There is very little visual humor in Central Intelligence, aside from the size discrepancy between its stars (Hart is 5’4”, Johnson 6’5”). All the movie’s gags are spoken, and when they’re on the level of “Hashtag blessed,” Aaron Paul saying “bitch” and an interminable bit about a penis transplant, you’ve got problems that star chemistry can’t fix.

People will probably love Central Intelligence, as it pulls some genuine laughs and doesn’t demand much out of you. But I can’t help but wonder what Johnson and Hart would have done in a better-constructed buddy film, such as Shane Black’s superlative The Nice Guys. In fact, I could easily imagine Hart and Johnson taking the roles occupied in that film by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, and pushing that better-written, better-directed material into a different, yet equally exciting direction. (I’d give a great deal to see how Hart and Johnson would have played The Nice Guys’ porn industry party sequence.) Johnson will get his chance when he works with Black on the upcoming Doc Savage. Maybe the affable giant will remember his tag-team buddy from this so-so bout, and ask Black if he can tag Hart in.

Central Intelligence (PG-13):★★★