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Johnson and Hart team up to elevate uneven 'Central Intelligence'

Posted June 20

“CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE” — 2½ stars — Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Danielle Nicolet, Amy Ryan, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul; PG-13 (crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language); in general release

It’s a challenge these days to find a mainstream comedy that isn’t tailored for young children or diving headfirst into the recesses of R-rated vulgarity. There’s just not a lot in between, and it’s poignant that this summer’s big comedy headliner is a remake of 1984’s “Ghostbusters,” a film that had plenty of company on that middle rung.

So while we wait for the latest piece of 1980s nostalgia to hit movie screens, director Rawson Marshall Thurber (2004’s “Dodgeball”) brings us “Central Intelligence,” a buddy comedy that tries to mark that PG-13 territory, but mostly shows that Dwayne Johnson can elevate the quality of just about any movie he’s in.

A quick prologue, set 20 years in the past, lays the foundation for our heroes’ odd friendship. Calvin (Kevin Hart) is a high school athletic superstar senior who is dating the prettiest girl in school (Maggie, played by Danielle Nicolet) and a unanimous selection for “most likely to succeed.” Robbie (Johnson, or at least Johnson’s face pasted on an out-of-shape body) is Calvin’s polar opposite, an obese loner with a special knack for embarrassing himself in public. When Robbie falls victim to a nasty high school prank, Calvin is the only person to come to his aid.

Jump ahead two decades, and adulthood has brought some surprises. Calvin went on to marry Maggie, but he’s stuck in a boring accounting job and coming to grips with the fact that he peaked in high school. He’s dreading the fast-approaching high school reunion but reluctantly hooks up with Robbie on Facebook and agrees to meet him for drinks.

At the bar, Calvin discovers that Robbie has somehow evolved into a chiseled specimen of a man, and behind his chiseled smile he seems to be hiding a shady past. A bar fight and a few altercations later, that past is revealed: Robbie is a CIA operative who needs Calvin’s accounting skills to take down a rogue called the Black Badger before he can sell valuable state secrets.

It’s a little reminiscent of 1988’s “Twins,” which paired up the oddball duo of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, albeit with considerably ramped-up action. To save the day, Robbie has to fend off Pamela (Amy Ryan), another agent who is convinced that he’s actually the Badger, and Robbie’s story is convincing enough that Calvin is never quite sure who to trust.

But the story is really just fodder for the give and take between Johnson and Hart, which delivers plenty of highlights. If a comedy’s job is to make you laugh, then “Central Intelligence” should bat around .700, and the hits are good enough to overshadow the misses. (“Arrested Development” fans should also watch for a mid-movie cameo as Robbie has to confront one of his former bullies.)

Hart is fun as the perpetually frustrated Calvin, but the truly fascinating performance in “Central Intelligence” belongs to Johnson. Clad in a yellow Public Enemy T-shirt and obnoxious camouflage pants, Johnson’s Robbie is trapped in the void between hopeless nerd, hardened government operative and idol worshipper. You can never quite tell if he’s pretending to be goofy to hide his agenda or genuinely taken with the closest thing he’s ever had to a real friend.

Whatever way you choose to take it, one certain conclusion is that Johnson has a special way of elevating the material around him, because for all of its positive pieces, “Central Intelligence” is an amalgam that never quite comes together. It’s a patchwork of good bits, fleshed out by ill-fitting spare parts, and desperately held together by the charisma of its leads. It will make you laugh but leave you wishing the whole package was a little better.

“Central Intelligence” is rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language; running time: 114 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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