“Alert Langley. Asset uncontained.” Enter Amy Ryan. She’s playing the straightest CIA agent alive, Pam Harris, her jaw set and her suit black, as she makes her way through the door of a suburban home. No matter that the “asset” has eluded her this time. Pam’s the agent in charge on this scene, At least until she starts questioning the homeowner.
That would be Calvin (Kevin Hart), who’s as surprised as Pam is that his overnight guest Bob (Dwayne Johnson) is nowhere in sight. Calvin’s amazement and Pam’s consternation set in motion the persistent pattern of Central Intelligence; namely, everyone reacts to Bob. And yes, he provides plenty of opportunity. While Pam identifies Bob as a fellow agent gone rogue, for Calvin, he’s a high school acquaintance returned just today via a Facebook friend request (on learning that clicking to confirm has led the CIA directly to his doorstep, Calvin delivers an easy-target laugh line: “Fuck Mark Zuckerberg!”).
Bob’s own version of himself begins with the scene that’s gone viral as the movie’s trailer, in which a rotund-and-naked CGI-ed Johnson is sent skidding across a gymnasium floor before a high school assembly, circa 1996. Now, 20 years later, Bob is the perfectly muscled specimen we all know Johnson to be.
Indeed, Johnson is now familiar in the way Arnold Schwarzenegger used to be, a professionally built body who plays a self-effacing nice guy in action pictures and comedies and all manner of TV and social media. To its credit, Central Intelligence makes some use of the familiarity, as Johnson is playing Bob playing Johnson, a self-effacing nice guy who might not be precisely that, a deception hinted at whenever he transforms from a Molly-Ringwald-loving sweetheart into a stern-faced killing machine. It’s a transformation that repeatedly wows Calvin, whose jaw drops at each demonstration of Bob’s strength and ingenuity. Alas, it all becomes as predictable as Pam’s insistence that her elusive asset is a villain in need of dire punishment.
In another movie the fact that Pam goes on to deliver a little bit of that punishment — in the form of grisly finger-mangling — would make her the worst sort of CIA interrogator and torturer. In another movie, she might be even be the villain. In Central Intelligence, she’s just a means to an end, raising questions about Bob’s sanity and intentions in order that Calvin might have doubts and so, in turn, you have doubts.
Pam’s idea of Bob as the rogue agent who means to sell US secret weapons codes is exactly opposite of Calvin’s idea of him. Calvin’s idea was formed back when they were in high school, when Calvin was a superstar athlete and class president known as the Golden Jet. From that perspective, Calvin — who is now “just an accountant” — remembers Bob as a kid who was overweight and bullied and known as Robbie Weirdicht.
That’s right: Bob is a dick joke.
To be fair, in Central Intelligence, he’s only one of many, many such jokes. They’re deployed by bad guys and good guys, friends and enemies, supporting players (a random bully in a bar scene) and co-stars (Jason Bateman as Bob’s high school bully grown up). Bob’s embodiment of the joke leads to subsidiary jokes, some having to do with how “hard” he is, and others with whether or not he’s gay, as he wears a fanny pack, he loves lip-syncing to En Vogue, gets called Calvin’s “pussy friend”, and tends to public displays of affection with Calvin, who was nice to him in high school.
It’s no surprise that Central Intelligence indulges in this kind of comedy, whether you see it as a buddy movie, a restyling of the Judd Apatow bromance or the basic sight gag afforded by Arnold Schwarzenegger-and-Danny DeVito. Still, the relentlessness here is daunting, its returns diminishing.
“They say every man is the hero of his own story,” Calvin offers early in the movie, by way of encouraging Bob to forget his own traumatized past and embrace his current brilliance. Bob’s genuinely intrigued by this line, wondering out loud, “Is that from Twilight?” Here, as elsewhere in Central Intelligence, the comedy is less than subtle, with Bob wearing his jorts and powder blue unicorn t-shirt emblazoned with the exhortation, “Always Be You”, his eyes wide at Calvin’s apparent insight.
It’s here that you might appreciate the one thing that might be maybe subtle in Central Intelligence, which is Johnson’s performance. As outsized and strange as Bob is supposed to be, Johnson brings a semblance of self-awareness, if not actual intelligence.