Nearly (but not quite) redeemed by its good nature and the megaton charisma of its two stars, “Central Intelligence” is a dopey blockbuster diversion that will surely keep United Airlines passengers entertained during the dog days of summer. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball,” “We’re the Millers”) and shot with the safety on at all times, this unambitious buddy comedy has all the biting wit and visual flair of a movie that already seems resigned to its final resting place on the tiny airplane screens where it will be interred. And yet, “Central Intelligence” knows something that audiences will be delighted to learn — or, more likely, rediscover — for themselves: Dwayne Johnson is a fucking national treasure.
Our story, eerily similar to that of Adam Sandler’s recent Netflix disaster, “The Do-Over,” begins all the way back in a magical time known as 1996. An obese teenager named Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson, his face plastered on to the body of an obese teenager as the result of the sophisticated uglification technology that allowed Brad Pitt to be an elderly dwarf in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), stands alone in his high school’s locker room showers, butt-naked and belting out his very own version of En Vogue’s 1992 pop masterpiece, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It),” which was definitely picked for its cultural specificity and extraordinary comedic value and not because it was the first thing that Thurber received clearance to use.
Meanwhile, in the packed gymnasium outside the locker room, prom king Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is enjoying the last of his glory days at the head of a pep rally for the graduating class. Alas, his “follow your dreams” speech interrupted by a pack of sniveling bullies who heave Robbie’s naked body onto the hardwood basketball court floor for the entire school to see. Sure, that’s probably a serious criminal misdemeanor in the eyes of “the law” or whatever, but boys will be boys. Calvin, a mensch to the core, rushes to help cover him up.
Cut to 20 years later: Calvin is a mid-level accountant who’s disappointed with his life, while Robbie — now going by the name Bob Stone — has evolved into a rippling half-Samoan demi-god who’s strong enough to carry an entire movie on his back. And yet, despite undergoing the most ridiculous physical transformation this side of Captain America, Bob is still a total doofus. Reuniting with Calvin at a local bar on the eve of their class reunion, Bob shows up rocking a fanny pack and a skin-tight t-shirt with a unicorn emblazoned across the chest. Viewers familiar with “Pain & Gain” know that Johnson is at his best (and most infectiously self-amused) when playing against type, and he seems to be having the time of his life as he belittles his co-star into playing the straight man.
Of course, there’s more to this story — the artist formerly known as “The Rock” wouldn’t just be a run-of-the-mill dweeb. We’re talking about Hercules. We’re talking about the Scorpion King. We’re talking about a guy who fought an earthquake in last summer’s “San Andreas,” and made that motherfucker apologize for every inch of its fault line. In other words, Calvin is the only one who’s even the least bit surprised when it turns out that Bob is a rogue, possibly psychotic C.I.A. agent who’s on the run from his boss (a thankless Amy Ryan) with a MacGuffin. “You’re Jason Bourne in jorts!,” yelps Hart, in one of his few memorable lines.
Calvin is the only guy Bob trusts (the movie is sweet like that), and the two get wrapped up in an explosively stupid adventure that — thanks to a tight $50 million budget and the fact that Thurber directs with all the visual panache of a McDonald’s commercial — often feels less like Jason Bourne than it does Agent Cody Banks. Fortunately, Thurber seems to have embraced his various limitations, and “Central Intelligence” doesn’t strain towards being a full-throated action-comedy. In fact, its few shootouts and car crashes are so half-assed that the movie occasionally feels like a deliberate throwback to the middle-brow studio fare of the ’80s and ’90s, which feels somewhat appropriate given that Hard and Johnson’s archetype-based chemistry is pretty much just “Twins” all over again.
The laughs are often just as limp, particularly because Hart doesn’t appear to be super comfortable with the idea that he’s there to tee-up jokes for his co-star. In the “Ride Along” movies, he and Ice Cube were a united front of unfunniness; here, Hart is just nipping at Johnson’s heels. Calvin’s default mode is “scared shitless,” and while the character serves a necessary function, he could pretty much be played by anyone (brilliant cameos from the likes of Jason Bateman and Kumail Nanjiani further emphasize how few of the one-liners land when Hart is left to deliver them).
Perhaps the problem is that Hart no longer needs to be anyone’s foil — he’s excellently empathetic in the more dramatic moments when he’s struggling to become the hero of his own story, and the film leaves us with reason to believe that Johnson isn’t the only one who should continue to subvert his image. And Johnson, good as he is, should only go further around the bend from here. For all the fun he’s having, he’s only truly electric in the moments when Thurber entertains the possibility that Bob might be a delusional psychopath who’s just flown over the cuckoo’s nest.
With a tepid studio offering like this, in which themes include such bold ideas as “bullies are bad,” “guns are fun,” and “all those haters from high school would worship you if you weren’t so fat,” there’s no hope that Johnson might dive off the deep end and create something special. And yet, between “Central Intelligence” and “Pain & Gain,” there’s reason to believe that he’ll get there, one day — it’s still too soon to smell what the Rock is cooking, but you can feel him firing up the grill.
“Central Intelligence” opens in theaters on Friday.