Central Intelligence hits the sweet spot with some really great Johnson

Sometimes, a movie is exactly what you need. That doesn’t mean it’s great cinema, or even something objectively very good.

When you see a movie, you’re starting a relationship, one that may be an hour and a half or it may be all the life long. And like a relationship, not every film serves the same purpose. Sometimes you’re just looking for something to enjoy and get you through a small amount of time. A can of chicken soup, designed to warm you up and make you feel just a bit more content.

Central Intelligence, and more specifically Dwayne Johnson’s starring role, is just the can of chicken soup that I needed.

Central Intelligence is a spy action-comedy that really doesn’t merit me bothering to try summarizing the plot. There’s some stolen satellite codes and CIA subterfuge and a dead partner (Aaron Paul) and a middle-aged dude, Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), who feels like he’s let life pass him by.

It’s all honestly nonsense, and if you let the convoluted and frankly thin plotting that the screenwriters have scripted here dictate too much of the film, the potential this film has for enjoyment is really gonna end up getting away from you.

This is a modern studio comedy and that means it’s a performer’s film. Dialogue and character notes are in service of the actors and likely left up to a lot of on-set rewriting and improvisation.

Like, I’m sorry, but there’s no way they wrote all of Kevin Hart’s little tangents originally, because he does those same tangents in every film he’s in.

Therefore, as happens with most performer-oriented films, the actual machinations of the story are usually fairly inconsistent and as much backdrop as any actual backdrop in the film. Same with the directorial efforts. It’s simple and designed just to get the basic shots, because artistry is not the goal.

It’s a long of way of saying that I really don’t want to throw too much shade at director Rawson Marshall Thurber for the fact that as an action-comedy, it’s just a little too inconsistent at comedy filmmaking and consistently weak as an action movie. It’s like criticizing a bird for their saxophone playing skills, there’s never any expectation that it would be doing it in the first place.

I’ve been shitting a lot on a movie that apparently made me feel better, so why the hell did I like it?

Well, that’s thanks to one Mr. Dwayne Johnson.

I’ve long thought the former “The Rock” was going to be the next big star, and he’s spent the last few years proving me right. Johnson has charisma absolutely unseen in a movie star almost since the end of the star system. He doesn’t just play a great character, he throws himself into it headlong. He’s an old school entertainer, doing everything he can to make sure that absolutely every single person watching is having the best time. You can almost imagine him stopping the film if he could see someone not smiling inside a screening.

Bob Stone, or Robbie Weirdicht (as was his true name in high school, say it out loud), may actually be the best character to show off what Johnson is capable of. A kid who was fat and bullied in high school and then got buff and in the CIA. Yet, Bob has something interesting to him. He’s still, with all his CIA skills, that weird kid with very specific interests. We’re introduced to him wearing a Unicorn shirt (he’s “really into ‘corns” as he helpfully explains) and deep down, he still gets frozen up when his bullies come back into his life.

It gives the movie itself a certain kindness at its core. It’s about overcoming bullies (a message I feel has a bit of resonance right now) and how those scars really can affect people. How men can be men in different ways, and about guys opening up, even if the film weirdly seems to push back against that when it seems to get too emotional. Much of that rests with Bob Stone.

Johnson has never played a character more pitch perfectly. He plays him with all the grinning enthusiasm and all the sweetness he requires and then some. He’s totally committed and there’s never a reason to question him, even if the film wants you to from time to time. He’s just so goshdarned likeable and just so…great.

If he could ever find the right role, I think Johnson even has the sort of moral authority that the old great stars had, like Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks. There’s something just so fundamentally decent about him, so legitimately good. Honestly, if Johnson doesn’t play a superhero, and I mean an old school good guy superhero, a Superman or a Shazam, then the casting directors of all those films have failed us. I really do want to see Dwayne Johnson play Superman after this movie.

He’s so good, he even makes Kevin Hart tolerable. I’m no great fan of him as a comedy movie star, I think he tends to take over and dominate the jokes of his films with a lot of out-of-place tangents and shrillness. But partially because he’s just so well-comedically paired with Johnson (them just standing together is visual comedy) and partially because Johnson so dominates the film that it helps balance out Hart’s comic fury.

Central Intelligence is no great shake. It’s inconsistent and even the good tends to be pushed back against. Its message of masculine emotion gets pushback from the action and its sweetness gets undercut by a few nasty jokes I really wish hadn’t made it all the way in.

But Johnson’s performance is so worth watching and so fundamentally good that I kinda let it sit by the wayside. Sometimes, I just need someone to come in and be good, decent, and fun. It’s what we all need.

Grade: B-

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