Be honest: Back in the days of The Scorpion King (2002), did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine the time would come when the Rock would star in the funniest action comedy in the country? That he'd costar with one of the world's top comics and not be the straight man? Or that he'd play a straight man but then plant a big juicy one smack on the comic's mouth?
All that has come to pass with the release of Central Intelligence, one of the smartest dumb comedies ever made. Who would have guessed that former wrestler and Fast & Furious regular Dwayne Johnson was really a giant, muscle-bound teddy bear, an actor gifted with terrific comic instincts and boundless reserves of sweetness and charm? Not me.
So watching the latest from writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, We're the Millers) was, to say the least, a pleasant surprise. Surprise No. 2: Kevin Hart dials down his manic, motormouthed shtick and plays his version of a comic foil. It's a casting gamble that pays off in virtually nonstop laughs.
The movie's opening moments set up the odd-couple dynamic with a flashback. Hart's Calvin Joyner is the most popular kid in school. He's holding court at a packed assembly when bullies barge into the gym and deposit a very naked, very tubby and very mortified Robbie Weirdicht on the floor. Everyone in the place cracks up except Calvin, who rushes over and gives the poor kid his letter jacket.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Calvin's glory days are a memory. His class reunion's coming up, and he's thinking of skipping it, given his mixed feelings about winding up a humdrum accountant. His life doesn't stay humdrum long, however, once he accepts a Facebook friend request from a Bob Stone. Bob Stone (Johnson) turns out to be Robbie — transformed into 6 feet, 5 inches of solid CIA killing machine.
The director cowrote the script with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, and one of its most amusing twists is that, while he's an intimidating mountain on the outside, Bob is still the geek he was in high school. "I'm big-time into 'corns," he tells a baffled Calvin when they reunite — unicorns, that is, like the one on his T-shirt. Bob talks about Sixteen Candles constantly and stores secret weapons in a fanny pack.
Faster than you can say "Jason Bourne in jorts" (which Hart actually does say at one point), the two find themselves on the run from the agency. Bob is suspected of killing his former partner, and they're sucked into some deadly if deliberately generic intrigue, in which Bob has the crazy idea that Calvin's accounting skills will be of use. The plot's pure nonsense, but the story's not the point here. The mission of Central Intelligence is to showcase the unexpectedly potent chemistry its two stars share and to allow Johnson to flex his comedic muscles.
It accomplishes that mission and then some. The dialogue's inspired ("You're like a snack-size Denzel," Bob exclaims to Calvin in the middle of a fight sequence). The agent's aura of innocence, enthusiasm and positivity is as winning as it is weird in an action context. So are his gratitude toward and love for Calvin. You don't see that every day.
A surprise third-act appearance by Melissa McCarthy is just icing on a tasty cake. Here's a comedy directed by someone who's worked with Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jason Sudeikis and Ed Helms, among other very funny people. Who'd ever have guessed Dwayne Johnson would prove funniest of them all?