Friday, June 17, 2016

Central Intelligence: Very little on display

Central Intelligence (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for strong profanity, crude humor, fleeting nudity and considerable violence

By Derrick Bang

Personality can trump weak material, and that’s certainly the case here.

Director/co-scripter Rawson Marshall Thurber’s limp spy comedy is nothing to write home about, and the so-called plot — fitfully fleshed out with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen — is pretty thin gruel, mostly serving as a flimsy template for sight gags and one-liners.

An online data analysis request made by Bob (Dwayne Johnson, right) seems simple
enough, but Calvin's (Kevin Hart) accounting savvy quickly alerts him to strange transaction
details. In another few minutes, he'll know that he should have left well enough alone...
But stars Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart give the package far more oomph than it deserves. They’re a great Mutt ’n’ Jeff pair, milking considerable humor from their size differential — an entire 12 inches! — and disparate personality quirks. The ever-smiling Johnson is sunshine and light, unflappably carefree even under crazed circumstances; Hart, in turn, is fussy, frantic and eternally put-upon. They play off each other quite well.

Which is a good thing, because they certainly deliver more than the material deserves.

Central Intelligence opens with a cringe-inducing prologue, set 20 years in the past, as high school superstar senior Calvin Joyner — nicknamed The Golden Jet, for all his sports and academic accomplishments — celebrates his graduation with a triumphant pep rally speech before the entire senior class. The event becomes notorious when five bullies burst into the room and toss the gentle but haplessly overweight Robbie Weirdicht, the uncoolest kid in school, onto the gym floor. Butt-naked.

Via the magic of CGI “sweetening,” Hart and Johnson play these younger versions of their characters (the latter’s puffy features, grafted onto an extra’s body, being particularly spooky).

Calvin resurrects some of poor Robbie’s dignity with an act of generosity: a benevolent gesture destined to have unexpected consequences.

Flash-forward to the present day. Calvin (Hart), despite all those long-ago “most likely to succeed” accolades, has become a drone accountant stuck on the middle rung of the corporate ladder, garnering zero respect from colleagues (Ryan Hansen’s Steve being a particularly obnoxious example). On the possible side, Calvin did marry high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), and they’re clearly made for each other.

Trouble is, Calvin’s career dissatisfaction has magnified into marital tension.

Then, out of the blue, Calvin gets a Facebook “friend request” from somebody named Bob Stone. Intimidated by the Facebook culture into accepting, Calvin gets an immediate “let’s go for a beer” offer from said fellow. To Calvin’s astonishment, it turns out that “Bob Stone” (Johnson, now in all his buff glory) actually is a new and improved Robbie. All he did, Bob explains, is work out six hours a day, every day, for the past 20 years. Heck, he insists, anybody could do that.

Superbly toned bod notwithstanding, Bob still is hopeless uncool, decked out in a fanny pack, and sporting a T-shirt with a My Little Pony unicorn. Worse yet, his favorite film still is 16 Candles, and his clumsy efforts at “bro talk” generally land with a thud.

And yes, watching the towering Johnson wallow contentedly in geeky affectations is just as funny as it sounds.

Ah, but this stroll down high school memory lane isn’t entirely serendipitous; Bob needs a favor. Could Calvin employ his accounting smarts to analyze a bit of financial data? Well, um, okay. The info is stored within a password-protected computer account, and mere seconds after Calvin pulls up the data on his personal laptop, all hell breaks loose.

Bob actually is a CIA agent trying to find a clandestine cyber-terrorist — nicknamed the “Black Badger” — who is trying to purchase stolen encryption codes for the U.S. spy satellite system. At least, that’s Bob’s take on events. CIA handler Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan), roaring onto the scene with squadrons of gun-toting associates, insists that Bob is a rogue agent who killed his previous partner in order to steal the aforementioned codes himself.

Either way, it’s all too much for poor Calvin to process, let alone survive.

The resulting free-for-all makes very little sense, serving solely as a vehicle for the many gun fights and physical skirmishes that threaten Calvin’s very existence. We’re supposed to believe that this somehow becomes a life-affirming experience, granting our frustrated accountant the excitement that his career thus far has failed to provide ... but that’s a tough sell.

So is Harris’ behavior, with her ever-changing “explanations” for what’s actually going down. (No, really, truly going down, she keeps insisting. Pinky-swear.) Ryan can’t begin to sell any of her character’s said-bookism dialogue, and I’m not even sure the film’s scripters know where their plot is going. Ryan is good at looking smug and superior, but that doesn’t help much.

That said, the stunt work and action scenes are well choreographed, successfully accomplishing two goals: to make Johnson’s Bob look impressively skilled, with Jackie Chan-like moves; and to give Hart’s Calvin plenty of opportunities for terrified, duck-and-cover squeals of protest. All of which are, indeed, reasonably amusing.

But not for almost two full hours. A comedy of this nature wears thin at about the 95-minute mark, and that’s definitely true here. Ultimately, the action scenes become same old/same old.

Quieter moments are even less successful. A sequence that finds Bob pretending to be a marital counselor is quite forced; Maggie isn’t aware of the deception, and therefore can’t understand why her husband is being so “weird” about their lunchtime therapy session. The whole scenario devolves into badly contrived stupidity.

Climactic revelations don’t work, since by then nobody really cares about the plot anyway. On the other hand, a couple of late-entry supporting performers are a nice surprise, in brief cameos.

Johnson continues to expand his skills in light comedy, nimbly playing on the disconnect between cheerful amiability and his can’t-help-but-be-intimidating physique. As with Vin Diesel and Arnold Schwarzenegger (back in his prime), there’s a certain teddy-bear huggability to these well-sculpted muscle men, but Johnson has the added advantage of better line-reading skills.

Hart’s shtick will be familiar to fans of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, among others; there’s a sameness to the forever aggrieved, agitated characters they’ve all played, usually in response to exaggerated events beyond their control. Hart’s comic timing can’t be faulted, but he doesn’t bring anything new to the stereotype. (In fairness, that’s because this script doesn’t grant him much opportunity.)

Nicolet is little more than ornamental; Tim Griffin fares better, as one of Harris’ CIA grunts. Ryan, as mentioned, can’t do anything with her material.

The film’s profanity and violence are a stretch for the PG-13 rating, likely awarded because few people seem to get hit during any of the gratuitous fusillades. Ergo, Central Intelligence should please viewers desiring disposable popcorn fluff, even if Johnson and Hart deserve better material.

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