Dwayne Johnson, the hulking beast of a former WWE wrestler affectionately known as The Rock, has made a new name for himself in the film world over the last decade as a hulking beast in action-packed fare such as the Fast and Furious franchise, Pain and Gain, San Andreas and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. If you were to have said he would have such a illustrious career in acting after his first starring role in the failed The Scorpion King, I would have said you’re nuts. But with his willingness to explode with charisma in much quieter fare (such as Be Cool and Gridiron Gang) and co-starring roles in tent-pole films like Get Smart and The The Other Guys, Johnson found a solid, respectable footing in cinema history. Some may pigeonhole Johnson as an action star, but he’s also shown his flair for comedy in many of the roles mentioned above, and though his attempts at straight comedy/kid flicks have proved to be his Kryptonite, whenever he combines comedy with one of his strengths, he usually finds a way to outshine his comedic partners. No more so is this true than in Central Intelligence, where Johnson steals every scene away from Kevin Hart to surprise as one of this year’s most hilarious performances.
And I don’t mean the “laughing at him” sort of way. Johnson genuinely finds the perfect balance between funny and absurd, diving right into every scenario with the utmost confidence, no matter how odd or crazy it may be for him or the audience. Once an overweight high school student who was constantly bullied and ridiculed for not only his heftiness, but his flamboyant, uncomfortably feminine nature (lover of rainbows, unicorns, dancing and lip-syncing to his favorite songs in the locker room shower), Bob Stone (Johnson) is now a muscle-bound CIA agent who may have gone rogue and may not quite be all there.
Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) was a huge deal in high school, participating not only in sports, but a whole shebang’s worth of activities. On top of it all, he’s compassionate enough to keep from laughing (and doing what he can to help) Bob during a very embarrassing moment at a high school assembly that at the same time awarded Calvin with several accolades for his high school accomplishments. Hart has almost become a one-note caricature of himself, basically playing the same character he has in many of his other films — the jittery fish-out-of-water scaredy-cat who thinks he’s cool until he’s placed under extreme pressure. But Johnson is able to ground and restrain him in a way that his other cop-buddy partners have failed to do. Their camaraderie and chemistry is spot-on, and together, the duo make everything click in the subtlest of ways.
Now grown and working at an accounting firm, Calvin is roped into joining forces with Bob to take down a supposed terrorist plot. The reversal of fortunes for these two “old friends” is a fun play on stereotypes (popular jock becomes a depressed desk jockey; fat kid becomes eye-candy for the ladies) that are essentially used to make fun of them while at the same time delivering a surprisingly sentimental and timely message about bullying.
The subplot that dives into this social commentary does a very good job of pointing out the scars that can form from the act of bullying. Utilizing the rule of three, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber and additonal screenwriters Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen pinpoint three moments in Bob’s life that take us through the arc. But it’s Johnson and his rival (played as an adult by the awesome Jason Bateman) that have to sell the arc to make it work — and they hit it out of the park. The balance of hiding the emotional scars and the humor that comes with Bateman’s slightly over-the-top (but perfectly rendered) performance conveys the issues with grace and subtlety. It’s an unexpected moment in a movie chock full of surprises, and hopefully it helps give kids and adults alike who are being bullied the confidence to be themselves no matter what and never let anyone (or anything) tear them down.
There are some bits and pieces of the film that are a bit on the side of eye-rolls (jokes, mostly that don’t land or get a little repetitive), though Melissa McCarthy does make an interesting cameo that shows she can, in fact, give a reserved performance. Her main shtick (playing the high-energy, boisterousness fat chick) can at times become very annoying, so it’s always nice to see that she can be just as funny without having to go to that extreme. It’s clear Central Intelligence raises the bar, hitting all the right notes, mostly because Johnson takes his personality to a whole other level, holding his own against comedy stalwarts while staying true to his natural persona, blowing away his competition in the action arena (and pairing quite nicely with Aaron Paul as his one-time partner), shocking and surprising the viewer and proving he’s more than just muscle — he’s a talented, generous and crazy-good performer.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Independence Day: Resurgence, Free State of Jones and The Shallows. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.