CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE

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CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE  * * *

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul and Jason Bateman. Screenplay by Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen and Rawson Marshall Thurber. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber.

The must-see summer comedy of 1986, this breezy buddy picture is one of those movies that was probably greenlit on the basis of its poster. Just looking at Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart together is inherently amusing, like a colorized version of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. The Rock and The Pebble. And what a great day it must have been for the marketing department when they discovered they could get away with puns about “a little Hart and a big Johnson.” Give those guys a raise.

If the Ride Along franchise has taught us anything it’s that you can make zillions of dollars by teaming Kevin Hart with an incongruous partner and the movies don’t even have to be good. But Central Intelligence is better than it needed to be; a low-stakes, high-energy romp that allows these two to groove on their peculiar chemistry and invest in characters capable of surprising us. The movie is indifferently shot and sometimes slackly edited, yet the stars bring an unexpected sweetness. We really like these guys.

A lengthy prologue –brought to life via those creepy digital de-aging effects that are all the rage these days– establishes our heroes back in high school. Hart’s Calvin Joyner, nicknamed The Golden Jet, was an all-star overachieving varsity athlete, student body president, class thespian, homecoming king, et cetera et al, while Johnson’s Robbie Weirdicht was a morbidly obese dork fond of dancing up a storm to En Vogue in the locker room shower. The only kindnesses shown to mercilessly bulled Robbie were by… you guessed it, The Golden Jet.

Cut to twenty years later and now Calvin’s a depressed accountant clinging for dear life to one of the lower rungs on the corporate ladder. In a deft bit of staging, his wife takes him out for lunch to talk about marriage counseling while his co-workers are whooping it up at a nearby table, celebrating a colleague getting the promotion Calvin so desperately wanted. He’s too dejected to even consider going to his high school reunion.

But then along comes Bob Stone, the former Robbie Weirdicht, who we’re told has pumped iron six hours a day for the past two decades, which is how he turned into The Rock. Johnson has always been an underrated comic actor but his work here is next-level sublime. Built like a brick shithouse yet still every bit the bullied kid, Bob wears a fanny pack and sparkly T-shirts emblazoned with unicorns. (“Man, I’m really into ‘corns. Did you know they’re the deadliest animal on the planet?”) It’s a kick to watch Hart buzzing in circles around the big galoot’s guileless, straight-up sincerity. Bob gazes at Calvin in awe — as if he were still the campus superstar – believing in him enough to make him believe in himself again.

Because this is a summer movie, Bob also happens to be a rogue CIA agent who may or may not have been framed. On the run and trying to save the world while clearing his name, he enlists his old buddy The Golden Jet for some goofy espionage and action sequences not nearly as inspired as the rapid-fire patter surrounding them. Central Intelligence is a better re-make of The In-Laws than the actual re-make of The In-Laws Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks tried back in 2003, and if it’s not as funny as the original In-Laws that’s because no movie is.

Amy Ryan plays things straight to little effect as Bob’s torture-happy supervisor, but there’s a phenomenally scummy performance by Jason Bateman as a school bully turned financial hotshot. With a malevolent smarm scarier than any of the movie’s gun-toting villains, Bateman pushes buttons that cause even our mountainous hero to crumble.

Central Intelligence has some surprisingly tender moments between its stars that cut through the white noise of the generic thriller plot. Thanks in no small part to these two lead performances, the movie has a heart as big as its Johnson.

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