Central Intelligence starts out twenty years ago in high school, on a day when bullied fat kid Robbie Weirdicht (Dwayne Johnson) is humiliated in front of an assembly. On that day, superstar student Calvin (Kevin Hart) is the only one who was kind to him. In present day, Calvin is an accountant, and is unhappy with where his life has taken him. Robbie shows up out of the blue, now a giant mass of muscle calling himself "Bob Stone," and asks for his help in some what he says is a payroll issue. It turns out, however, that Bob is a secret agent, and he gets Calvin involved in some dangerous business.
The business involves some sort of MacGuffin, some light technobabble, and a series or twists involving a former partner. The plot, as it goes, seems to fade more and more into the background, its developments never adding much to the overall picture. The film is serviceable as a buddy picture, its two main stars putting a lot of effort into creating a strange dynamic that reveals a startling undercurrent of sweetness. But overall, the film lacks the intelligence that its title promises, the screenplay barely putting together a plot.
The film tries to wring tension out of some ambiguity regarding Bob Stone’s motivations. At the same time, the film wants the audience to invest in the relationship with the two main characters. These ideas are wholly incompatible. It needed to choose one or the other. The attempt to muddle the motivations of the super spy mainly results in him treating his supposed best friend badly. This film could have been much tighter and much more likable if it just gave up that pretense and had Bob Stone be upfront and honest about what he needed from Calvin.
The plot isn’t very good, anyway. As it piles on the twists, it becomes more and more incoherent. It doesn’t help that the action is so badly directed, with rapid-fire cuts making it a challenge to follow any of the motion. But through all that, the film actually has some solid jokes. And there’s a strain of sweetness at the heart of this movie that is startling in its earnestness. The film contrives a lot of tedious nonsense around it, but the core of these two characters trying to deal with who they were twenty years ago is weirdly resonant.
A lot of the credit goes to these two lead actors. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart share good chemistry in spite of the challenges presented by the script. Hart’s great at being a fish-out-of-water, his mounting frustration with the escalating danger his character faces a goldmine for comedy. And Johnson brings bracing vulnerability to the role of the action tough guy. He makes you feel at every turn that his character does indeed carry a lot of baggage, that there is still something in him that can be hurt in spite of who he is. There isn’t much to say about the supporting cast. Big names show up in thankless roles and then mostly disappear.
Central Intelligence is intriguingly sweet in the middle, offering a squishy core that explores the hangups that might be left over from adolescence, even two decades removed from that experience. But the movie surrounds it with a plot that feels perfunctory at best, a spy story that’s supposedly about saving the world where the danger is never quite felt. There’s stuff to enjoy, certainly, but one has to get through a lot of tedious material.