Its highlights include Johnson, who’s a bona-fide movie star who rarely seems to find projects that match his magnetic screen presence. Perhaps it’s his next-level beefiness, which usually slots him into a specific role as the stone-faced straight man in a comedy. Central Intelligence is wise enough to undo that stereotype, having Johnson play Robert Weirdicht (yes, it’s pronounced “Weird Dick”), a high-school dweeb who looked up to star athlete Calvin Joyner (Hart) in his youth and became a hard-bodied CIA action hero in an effort to emulate his popularity. Hart, meanwhile, peaked in his teens and has become a pencil-pushing nobody, though equipped with the manic energy Hart brings to all of his performances.
In flashbacks, CGI trickery turns Johnson into an overweight, awkward fool of a teenager, singing with abandon in the gym showers and getting publicly bullied in an early sequence that pushes both good taste and visual credibility (computer-generated teen Robert looks downright bizarre, though not as strange as Johnson’s turn as The Scorpion King). But the film pulls it off by staying resolutely on Robert’s side and carrying his goofy personality over to adulthood, where he gets to inhabit Johnson’s chiseled form. Robert still loves unicorns, singing En Vogue, and sharing dated memes (he reconnects with Calvin on Facebook by sending him a link to the Budweiser “Wassup” commercial). But he’s also an international superspy.
The problem with this is that it forces Hart into the straight-man role, which feels like a waste of his live-wire talents. A dull accountant who bemoans the loss of his glory days, Calvin spends most of the film reacting to Robert’s martial-arts and sharpshooting expertise with delight and horror, while being dragged from one location to the next by a perfectly nonsensical plot. There are double agents, encrypted codes, and a CIA authority figure played by Amy Ryan whose trustworthiness is suspect, but it’s hard to buy into any of Central Intelligence’s perfunctory twists. The story here is Robert and Calvin’s reconnection, and the joke that you can never quite shake who you were in high school—the bullets whizzing around are almost beside the point.
Still, Johnson is a gifted enough physical comedian that he sells some of the set-pieces. Part of the joke with Robert is that he’s utterly unflappable in the field, dispatching assassins with delighted ease while Calvin contributes jittery yelps alongside him. Early on, confronted with a knife-wielding enemy, Robert picks up his only available weapon to counter with—a banana—and the audience is never in doubt as to who will win that showdown. Anytime Robert is in action mode, the stakes are decidedly low.
But when he reunites with his old high-school bully (played in adulthood by a sneering Jason Bateman), he freezes up, and there’s just enough pathos to the moment for it to land, partly because the film never fails to celebrate Robert’s goofiness. “I realized high school was nothing like Sixteen Candles,” he confides to Calvin, recalling his experiences with bullying. “And I’ll never be like Molly Ringwald.” Central Intelligence does its best to make Johnson its Molly Ringwald—and it’s that effort that makes it just memorable enough to recommend.