Maybe last week I’d have found “Central Intelligence” funny and amusing. But this week, a comedy that contains countless sprays of bullets and a dizzying amount of shootouts is anything but. As a beaming Dwayne Johnson and shrieking Kevin Hart barrel through the typical gun-blazing climax of an action-comedy, my mind raced through the barrage of recent headlines, and I grew so uncomfortable I considered leaving the theater.
“Central Intelligence” is not an especially violent movie. It’s PG-13, so you know that means little blood, yet somehow a gruesome explosion in an elevator that turns a CIA operative into a blast of blood, guts and a dismembered ear is apparently cool to play on three-peat. Of course, it’s not the movie’s fault that it’s opening the weekend after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history; that’s merely bad timing.
Our story begins in 1996, when Calvin Joyner (Hart) was the god of his high school. Nicknamed “The Golden Jet,” this senior stud was an all-around athlete with great grades, charisma, and the kindness and courage to stand up to bullies. So when poor “Fat Robbie” Weirdetcht (Johnson) is pitched buck-naked and defenseless into a pep rally, Calvin nobly surrenders his letterman’s jacket to allow Robbie to cover himself and make an escape. Cut to 20 years later, and Calvin is in a dead-end job, with the upcoming class reunion making him feel like a failure. Then Robbie returns with a mega-muscly makeover and childlike enthusiasm — and the CIA chasing him on charges of treason and murder.
Robbie ropes Calvin into the quest to clear his name, despite much kicking and screaming. In the midst of hunting down the nefarious “Black Badger” who framed Robbie, this odd couple evades a hardened CIA agent (Amy Ryan), confronts Robbie’s high school nemesis (Jason Bateman) and makes time for marriage counseling with Calvin’s oblivious wife (Danielle Nicolet).
The plot is confusing, no matter how many times it’s explained in exposition dumps. But you’re not coming for that, right? You’re here for the comedy stylings of Johnson and Hart. True to his brand, Johnson is winsome through and through, whether he’s coldly cutting down assassins and agents with a burly bicep, or joyfully challenging traditional masculinity in a unicorn tee, fanny pack and gigantic jorts. (Like Deadpool, Robbie is a big fan of unicorns, and isn’t ashamed of that.)
Pleasantly surprising, “Central Intelligence” has lots of fun mocking toxic masculinity. While its weaving spy tale keeps the audience guessing about the movie’s villain, the story is filled with various “bro”-spouting douchebags whose abusive, homophobic and sexist behavior earns them a deserved WWE-style beatdown. (And you know The Rock can cook that up.)
Bateman smirks through a mean-spirited scene or two, but it’s “Party Down’s” Ryan Hansen who makes the most out of playing a suited-up scumbag, spitting gross one-liners, spiking smug head nods, and taking a tazer for his condescending remarks to Ryan’s no-nonsense spy.
Yet “Central Intelligence” wants it both ways. On one hand, the film promotes a message that denounces bullies and praises self-acceptance, down to Robbie’s unicorn shirt that reads “Always Be You.” On the other, however, it revels in fat jokes, treating the bare ass of Johnson’s body stand-in (internet sensation/incredible dancer Sione Kelepi) as a gag unto itself. And later, Hart freaks out in a tired gay-panic bit, and rants about how Asian men have small penises. (At least sharp standup Kumail Nanjiani is on hand to call him out on that one?) Beyond being offensive and lame, those kinds of jokes received way fewer laughs than more unexpected cracks about Scientology and race, like when Robbie guilelessly describes Calvin as “a black Will Smith.”
Beyond Hart’s tired barbs, his standard yelling shtick and much mugging, he brings little to “Central Intelligence.” The dynamic comic is solidly outshone by the wrestler turned movie star. Johnson is a charisma explosion, so “Central Intelligence” is not without its charms, which include Johnson stripping down for a cruelly PG-13 dance number.
“Central Intelligence” is fine. It’s just not particularly funny. And while the rampant gunplay made me anxious as the movie tumbles into its big finish, I don’t imagine I’d have found this discombobulated comedy all that worthwhile last week either.
“Central Intelligence” opens today nationwide.
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