Kevin Hart’s motor-mouthed, zinger-a-minute comic delivery does what it can to enliven “Ride Along,” a lazy and listless buddy-cop action-comedy that fades from memory as quickly as its generic title. Opening in the post-awards-season January doldrums, this Universal urban programmer should score some quick cash from fans of Hart and co-star/producer Ice Cube, but seems unlikely to match the success of director Tim Story’s previous collaborations with these stars: 2012’s “Think Like a Man” ($91 million domestic), which featured Hart, and 2002’s Ice Cube vehicle “Barbershop” ($75 million domestic).
The 5-foot-4 Hart, who projects some of the manic, man-child energy of the young Jerry Lewis, is well cast here as Ben Barber, an Atlanta high-school security guard who dreams of becoming a real cop and of proposing to his longtime live-in girlfriend, Angela (Tika Sumpter). But first, he must win the approval of Angela’s stern older brother, James (Ice Cube), who happens to be a hard-bitten detective with the Atlanta PD. James, meanwhile, believes sis can do better than this diminutive nebbish who spends all his spare time playing videogames, and so plots to give his prospective brother-in-law a crash course in the grit and gristle of real police work by allowing him to “ride along” for one day on his beat.
One can marvel that it took four credited writers to come up with the ensuing cavalcade of moth-eaten comic situations, which include Ben running afoul of a surly biker gang and getting lifted off his feet by a shotgun’s kickback at the firing range. (All that’s missing is a car chase in which someone knocks over a fruit stand.) Even in such hackneyed routines, Hart can be fun to watch, especially when he goes toe-to-toe with one menacing perp whom he mistakenly thinks is a plant put there by James to test his mettle. But the movie doesn’t offer much for Cube, who’s too innately likable to be convincing as the disapproving authority figure. (He glowers and grimaces a lot, but underneath it all we know he’s a big softie from the start.) Even less well served: those resourceful character actors John Leguizamo and Bruce McGill, saddled with throwaway roles as, respectively, a cop with an all-too-obvious secret and a blowhard sergeant who constantly scolds James for playing by his own rules.
The movie’s only mildly clever conceit, not exploited nearly enough, is that Ben’s many hours logged playing a “Call of Duty”-style combat videogame have left him with an encyclopedic knowledge of military-grade weaponry — a skill that helps him to unearth a couple of clues in a major case James has been working. This in turn leads “Ride Along” down the dreariest of cop-movie alleys, including central-casting Serbian terrorists and a mysterious crime lord named Omar, who’s so stealthy no one even knows what he looks like. When Omar (played by a semi-surprise guest star) finally shows his face during the obligatory abandoned-warehouse climax, he suffers from what Roger Ebert memorably termed the “Fallacy of the Talking Killer,” droning on at such length about his nefarious plans that our heroes have multiple opportunities to turn the tables on him.
“Ride Along” quotes directly from such genre touchstones as “Training Day” and “Lethal Weapon” while indirectly calling to mind the likes of “Bad Boys,” “Midnight Run” and this past summer’s “The Heat” — all of which offered more dimensional characters and more inspired ways of navigating this well-trodden ground. Story, who also directed Fox’s slyly self-mocking “Fantastic Four” movies, seems as bored by the material as the audience, delivering action and jokes with a base level of technical competence but no particular flair.