Central Intelligence: Plenty of brainless laughs

Film critics are often imagined to be dour kill-joys who have long forgotten how to enjoy frivolous films. That’s why the popular defence of such films usually goes something like, “It is great fun, as long as you don’t watch it like a critic.” Well, my enjoyment of Central Intelligence certainly goes against such assumptions. The film is everything we aren’t supposed to like: it is juvenile, predictable, and the gags are way over the top. But as shown time and again in the past, when a film remains true to itself—even if the ‘ignoble’ motive is to generate cheap laughs—it’s fascinating how tolerable it turns out to be.

Central Intelligence
Running time: 114 minutes
Genre: Action comedy
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul
Storyline: A jaded accountant must team up with a former high-school classmate to save America, and in the process, themselves

Central Intelligence opens with a flashback. The setting is the Central High School and the year is 1986. Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is the toast of the school, and is winning the Student of the Year award. He’s voted ‘most likely to succeed’ (The dour kill-joy in me began wondering about the adverse effects of having such an award in the first place). Calvin’s great at everything: theatre, sports, education. He’s also the prom king, and has the hottest girlfriend in school. If he were an Indian director, he would likely be able to release his film without cuts. Everything he touches turns to gold, which probably explains his nickname, Golden Jet. At the other extreme is Robbie Wheirdicht (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), an overweight loner with jowls that’d put a St. Bernard to shame. He’s bullied by everybody except the Golden Jet, and seems set to be single for a long, long time. That probably explains why his introduction scene has him dancing to En Vogue’s My lovin’: “No, you’re never gonna get it, never gonna get it…” The film is subtle like that.

You mustn’t seek depth here. You mustn’t ask why the agents in the film seem to be really missing the I in CIA. You mustn’t roll your eyes at the twist towards the end, and wonder about the fairness of an average citizen getting so spectacularly manipulated and almost getting killed in the process. The jokes, to their credit, help distract you from such dwelling. They begin arriving thick and fast, when, as adults, Robbie and Calvin meet over a drink on the eve of their high-school reunion in 2016. The tables have now turned, as it so often does in life. Robbie is now a CIA agent gone rogue, and is Dwayne Johnson in all his chiselled splendour (“You’re like Hercules!”), thanks to “working out six hours a day for the last twenty years.” Meanwhile, Calvin has turned into a jaded accountant in the periphery of marital trouble. Almost all of the humour is generated by Kevin Hart’s theatricality, when he gets unfortunately embroiled in Robbie’s situation. When a CIA agent interrogates him and makes him seem culpable, he is hilariously frustrated at how he fails to talk himself out of the situation. Eventually, he gives up, and politely asks them to get out of his house because he has to “take a shit”.

It’s the sort of film you will enjoy a lot if you’re in the mood for such hyperbolic humour. A detective is busy checking out porn during an important investigation, Robbie role-plays as Calvin’s wife under the guise of marriage counselling in a sequence so outlandish that you can’t but keep chuckling… But mind you, even if you’re in the mood, there are a few jokes that could potentially fail: like the Indian security guard who has a pet snake called Snake Gyllenhaal. But there isn’t a lot of that, thankfully. These jokes play out, as Robbie and an unwitting Calvin save America, and in the process, also themselves from personal demons.

There’s also a lot of mumbo jumbo about satellite encryption codes being auctioned out in the black market. There’s a bit of intrigue concerning the identity of an evil man called the Black Badger. But none of this matters. What keeps you interested is Kevin Hart, or as Robbie calls him, “snack-sized Denzel”, scurrying around scared, and generating laughs on account of his plight. You’re laughing not so much with him than you’re at him.

Ultimately, Central Intelligence is a high-school chick flick, and rather fittingly ends at a high-school reunion, in which Robbie, for some reason, has to parade himself naked in order to get over the traumatic bullying incident that has scarred him for life. I wasn’t sure what the big metaphor here was, but I’m pretty sure his last name, Wheirdicht, had something to do with it.

This review was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.

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