"Central Intelligence ," a buddy action-comedy starring Kevin Hart and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, doesn't pack many big laughs, but it is likely to keep a smile on your face for the duration.
That's largely because of the charisma of its two leads, who wholly embrace the earnest goofiness of Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen's ("The Mindy Project") story about two guys at the opposite ends of the high school hierarchy. There's more to it than that, but at its heart — and yes, this movie has a big, beating heart — this story centers on a high school prince who grows up to be an ordinary guy (Hart's Calvin Joyner) and the overweight outcast who sheds his flab and becomes exceptional (Johnson's Bob Stone) and what they learn from one another. Seriously!
The movie, from "We're The Millers" director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also has a script credit, opens on a flashback of a 1996 high school pep rally where Calvin offers an act of kindness to his less fortunate classmate when everyone else just sits there and laughs. Cut to 20 years later and "most likely to succeed" Calvin is married to his high school girlfriend (Danielle Nicolet) and working as a midlevel accountant who's just been passed over for a promotion that his former assistant gets instead. It's the eve of their high school reunion and he'd rather not go at all. He's feeling a little too average for the "what are you doing now" small talk.
That's when Bob comes back into his life. A random friend request from a mysterious fellow who claims to like guns, pancakes and unicorns, followed by a few enthusiastic Facebook messages, lead to the two getting together for drinks. Bob is not the 300-pound pariah anymore. He's The Rock. And yet, despite the exterior upgrade, though, he's still an affable dweeb at heart, rocking a fanny pack, jean shorts, a unicorn t-shirt. He's genuinely thrilled to be hanging out with Calvin, too.
It just so happens that Bob is also a super spy who is on the run from his fellow CIA agents for mysterious reasons. Calvin, of course, gets entangled in all of this, bringing the requisite wide-eyed WTF perspective needed in this sort of over-the-top comedy.
Again, it's the actors who really bring "Central Intelligence" home. One of Johnson's great onscreen strengths is that he has a believable softness to him that belies his hard shell, even in his more hardcore roles. Here, that high-wattage charisma is turned up to 11. He's almost daring you not to smile along with him.
Hart, in the straight man role, gets to flex some muscles that not many comedies ask of him — relative subtlety. For a man who displays such unwavering confidence most of the time, Hart's Calvin is like a less depressed Louis C.K. In some past life, this might have even been a Steve Martin role.
"Central Intelligence" also boasts an impressive roster of cameos and bit parts from comedians like "Silicon Valley's" Kumail Nanjiani and a few others that I won't spoil here.
The plot is pretty silly and not worth much discussion, although in its nearly two-hour runtime, some scenes drag on interminably and bits start to feel a little repetitive. Thurber should have trimmed some of that fat but he probably didn't want to throw out any even slightly amusing footage of his two superstars. And what didn't make it into the film can probably be found in the blooper reel at the end.
Despite its shortcomings, "Central Intelligence" is a satisfyingly sweet summer distraction that should only improve with time and repeat viewings.
"Central Intelligence," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence, and brief strong language." Running time: 114 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.