The words “action comedy” go together not just because the movies they describe combine action and comedy. They go together because, in a machine-tooled lark like “Central Intelligence,” each one becomes the other. The dialogue, as quick and aggressive as a punch to the face, really is a form of action; the gun battles, car crashes, and hurtling bodies are staged with a more-mayhem-the-better lightness that turns violence into something to giggle at, as if it were all transpiring in a Road Runner cartoon. At least, that’s the idea.
In “Central Intelligence,” when Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), a mild-mannered accountant coerced into becoming the partner of a rogue CIA agent, jabbers on, for the opening act or two, about how he wants nothing at all to do with this scheme (“I’m not in!” he keeps wailing; he just wants out), Hart lets his voice creep up into high Eddie Murphy dudgeon, and the words tumble out so fast that it almost stops mattering what he’s saying. It’s the comedy of controlled hysteria — the verbal equivalent of madly flailing fists. And when Dwayne Johnson, as the agent in question, gets out of a jam by slamming some guy’s head with an office refrigerator door, setting off water sprinklers and a smoke bomb, and pushing a mail cart (that contains Kevin Hart) through the plate-glass window of what must be the 20th floor, it’s all just a joke: slapstick with extra pain. Of course, the downside of the action-comedy recipe is that it risks having almost no consequence. The danger of the form is that action and comedy, instead of adding something to one another, just cancel each other out.
That’s sort of what happens in “Central Intelligence,” though you couldn’t accuse the movie of not hurtling along. It delivers — on some basic, giddy, turn-off-your-frontal-lobes level. It’s an action-comedy utensil, like “Rush Hour” crossed with an old Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-’em-up, with a few goofy added sprinkles of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” It’s the sort of movie that, in its highly formulaic way, reveals a lot about what audiences are seeking today. A scabrous buddy comedy like “The Nice Guys” appeared to have a lot going for it, but it didn’t have the right action-to-comedy ratio (there wasn’t a spatter of gunfire every eight minutes), and the characters were a tad too quirky for the genre. “Central Intelligence” goes back to basics: Kevin Hart, as talented a funnyman as he is, squawks and rails and goes scaredy-cat on cue, while Dwayne Johnson, as the undercover agent, plays a pumped-up friendly giant who’s too sensitive for his own good. The joke of both characters is right on the surface, and it stays there for an hour and 45 minutes. The movie, in other words, serves up just enough of the standard microwaved meat and potatoes of action comedy to have the potential to be a medium-size hit.
The opening flashback strikes the film’s only note of over-the-top nuttiness: In a high school gym in 1996, we see Johnson’s Robbie Weirdicht as the blobby loser he was — a dork who looks like Rob Schneider in a fat suit, and who gets humiliated by being tossed, naked, into the middle of a year-end pep rally. Calvin, the class superstar, is the only one who doesn’t laugh at him, and twenty years later, Robbie — now under the pseudonym Bob Stone — contacts him on Facebook and arranges a reunion. As Calvin discovers, Bob, after twenty years of six-hour-a-day workouts, now looks like Dwayne Johnson, but he’s the same girly-man inside (sort of). He prizes hugs and unicorns, his favorite movie is “Sixteen Candles,” and whenever the subject of high school comes up, he looks like he wants to crawl under a desk. But, of course, he’s also a tattooed bruiser who will kick the butt of anyone he has to, especially bullies. Johnson draws, as much as he ever has, on his ironic courtliness — the side of him that doesn’t just look like Barack Obama on hulk serum but talks like Obama, with the articulate civility that has made Johnson into a gently disarming screen star. Bob gets tough when he needs to, but he’s always much sweeter than we expect, and in “Central Intelligence” that’s Johnson’s version of the Schwarzenegger shuffle.
Hart is a good match for him, but he doesn’t get enough good lines. After a fight, when he says to Bob, “You were like Jason Bourne, man — but with jorts!” the moment has a snap to it. But though his delivery is ace, hardly any of Hart’s dialogue surprises you; it’s mostly rote fear and ranting. There’s a halfway funny scene in which Bob pretends to be a couples therapist who keeps slapping Calvin, and Jason Bateman, in an unbilled cameo as Bob’s old high-school tormentor, has a stylish nastiness that momentarily steals the movie out from under the two stars. It’s enough to make you wish that “Central Intelligence” didn’t turn into a kind of straight-up thriller, mostly out of laziness. It’s easier to do variations on the same old cloak-and-dagger crapola than it is to elevate horn-locking irritability into true banter.
Bob is out to nail the Black Badger, a mystery agent who, it seems, has murdered his partner and plans to sell U.S. satellite encryption codes to the highest bidder. But Bob’s boss, played with brusquely appealing heartlessness by Amy Ryan, thinks that Bob is the Black Badger, and the way this plays out is just competent enough on a spy-game level to make you momentarily forget that you didn’t buy a ticket to “Central Intelligence” to watch a third-rate Bourne film in jorts. You bought that ticket to laugh. You will not do it quite enough.