“You can’t look a guy in the eye and say something like that”
Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber is finally back to the zany, off-the-wall, and over-the-top antics that made him a hot commodity back in 2004 after the release of Dodgeball. He took a genre (the underdog sports tale), brought it down from its lofty pedestal of true life historical pedigree and had fun lambasting the tropes in as juvenile a way possible while still retaining the smarts to remain satire. His last film, We’re the Millers, lacked that flair for the tongue-in-cheek and suffered from being unable to excel beyond run-of-the-mill bottom barrel humor as a result. It had no hook to be relevantly unique—to knowingly poke fun at itself rather than plainly be stupid. Well he’s learned his lesson because Central Intelligence takes Dodgeball‘s template and runs wild.
There’s a glaring difference between those two and We’re the Millers: he didn’t earn a screenwriting credit on the latter. While Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen originated Central Intelligence‘s story, Thurber stewarded them on the screenplay by tweaking things to fit his mold whether adding flavor and dialogue or perhaps leading a wholesale revamp himself (he’s an “and” not an “&”). Whatever the process, it proves enough like his debut to understand why he’d tackle its material. A spy thriller at face value, it’s really another underdog tale with a presently flagging, former Big Man on Campus-type pairing off with his graduating class’s pariah turned stud. Consciously turning its spy tropes on their head to earn laughs atop the thrills, it’s actually very similar to Knight and Day.
Dwayne Johnson plays the Tom Cruise, is-he-or-isn’t-he rogue agent in what might be his best role yet. The Rock has built a successful career on being the charismatic bad ass—more or less a version of his wrestling persona. This Bob Stone (aka Robbie Wierdick) character provides a showcase for actual persona too. He enhances the cold-stone killer demeanor with the softness utilized in his children’s fare. Bob’s endearing innocence goes even further to place him on the Autistic spectrum as much as earn the sociopath label. His adoration for high school MVP Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart) is simultaneously genuine and a front to manipulate him for his forensic accounting skills. Bob’s personality is simply too big to hide behind the stereotypical CIA stoicism.
And just as he’s playing a variation on himself, so too is Hart. Kevin is generally cast as the loudmouth comic relief that cannot help acting stupid. He’s that guy again, but as the straight man. He knows he shouldn’t be in the situation he currently finds himself rather than pretends he belongs. His Calvin desperately tries to be the voice of reason while Bob smiles, ignores his pleas to walk away, and ultimately provides the off-course superstar who’s lost the drive to push himself forward a spark of that long-forgotten confidence the nickname “Golden Jet” once provided. Calvin is treading water at a dead-end job and his marriage to high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) is suffering. Saving the world might be the cure-all he needs.
But is he saving the world? This question looms large once we’re introduced to the CIA’s shadow world. Bob says he’s being set-up to take the fall for stealing US satellite codes by comically named black market figure “The Black Badger”. His CIA handler, Amy Ryan‘s Agent Pamela Harris, believes he is the “The Black Badger”. In order to exonerate himself, Bob must acquire the transaction number used by the winning bidder at the illegal auction (a deed perfectly suited to Calvin’s skill-set), pinpoint the location of the transaction, and stop it. So, despite not having seen him in twenty years, Bob knocks on Calvin’s door with a grin. The latter once helped him at a youthful time of need, and he’s back to return the favor.
The plot is like any other of its genre with double-crossings, dangerous shootouts, and duplicitous identities. Bob’s partner is dead: did he kill him or did “The Black Badger”? Calvin is a mark at the end of the day, but Bob legitimately loves him enough to creepily remember every detail of the scholar athlete’s past. So what is real? What’s an act? Who is “The Black Badger”? Thurber keeps it all in there and yet I don’t think it was unintentional that I honestly didn’t care. Whether happy ending to save the free world or bittersweet revelation that Bob is an international criminal, both conclusions work because the plot’s true purpose is to put these characters together and let them riff. Their chemistry is a thing of beauty.
Hart’s reaction shots are perfection opposite Johnson’s unhinged jovialness mixed with unintentional awkwardness. Bob is king at making a good situation uncomfortable and Calvin matches his obliviousness with that discomfort. But through it all this unsuspecting number cruncher never runs away (he does once, but it’s to “save” his wife). He pushes back, but never leaves because something about this giant oddity seems authentic. Calvin wants to believe Bob’s story despite the insane stunts he’s forced to accomplish to do so. And if you look closely you will too. Not only does Bob have an uncanny awareness of where he is at all times for outrageous exit strategies, he’s quick enough on his feet to fight and incapacitate without ever taking a kill shot.
Thurber is confident enough in this comedy to let his wild situations play out. The aftermath when the duo almost dies is always the same: Bob whoops in excitement as though he just exited a roller coaster and Calvin doubles over in anxiety before exploding in a fit of manic panic. The director also revels in the silly trope of Bob teleporting from one place to another via jump cuts pushing time one second forward. His CIA operative isn’t good; he’s cartoon-level impossible. It’s okay, though, because that’s part of the joke. We don’t accept the impossible as reality because Calvin never does. Each instance has Hart’s character react exactly like we do in the audience. He’s cognizant of the joke and it makes the laugh bigger.
So we sit back and enjoy the antics, letting the otherwise obvious plot unfold in the background without needing to guess its outcome. These characters are too good to be overshadowed by story and Thurber knows it. That’s not to say everything isn’t planned to prevent plot-holes, though. Some details are convenient, but they’re also crucial to ensuring we don’t question motivation. Bob and Calvin are exactly where they need to be and their relationship evolves as naturally as it could under such extraordinary circumstances. Add a couple of great cameos for cathartic flavor and you have a bona fide popcorn comedy classic. Thurber lets his perfectly cast leads go for broke and it shows. Johnson and Hart are having a blast and so are we.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., UNIVERSAL PICTURES AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – U.S. AND CANADA. © 2016 UNIVERSAL PICTURES, WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – ALL OTHER TERRITORIES. Photo Credit: Claire Folger. Caption: (L-r) DWAYNE JOHNSON as Bob and KEVIN HART as Calvin in New Line Cinema’s and Universal Pictures’ action comedy “CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., UNIVERSAL PICTURES AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – U.S. AND CANADA. © 2016 UNIVERSAL PICTURES, WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – ALL OTHER TERRITORIES. Photo Credit: Claire Folger. Caption: (L-r) AARON PAUL as Phil and DWAYNE JOHNSON as Bob in New Line Cinema’s and Universal Pictures’ action comedy “CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., UNIVERSAL PICTURES AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – U.S. AND CANADA. © 2016 UNIVERSAL PICTURES, WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – ALL OTHER TERRITORIES. Photo Credit: Claire Folger. Caption: (L-r) DANIELLE NICOLET as Maggie and KEVIN HART as Calvin in New Line Cinema’s and Universal Pictures’ action comedy “CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.