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Central Intelligence movie review: Dwayne Johnson surprises in atypical buddy comedy

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Is Dwayne Johnson Hollywood’s greatest special effect? The sensational images we see in big studio-produced pictures — explosions that consume city blocks, action set pieces with beasts, fire, aliens, natural disasters etc — can take weeks or even months to create. A million mouse strokes from armies of vitamin D-deprived geeks toiling away in the dark.

But, man, take one look at Johnson and it’s clear he matches all their efforts and then some. That mighty, Everest-esque, deity-like physique is nothing if not pathologically contrived: a living, breathing ode to Hollywood work ethic.

In Central Intelligence, a buddy comedy from director Rawson Marshall Thurber (whose films include Dodgeball and We’re the Millers) Johnson plays Bob Stone, a formerly fat and socially awkward ’90s high school kid. Twenty years later he has transformed into somebody who looks, well … who looks like Dwayne Johnson.

The formerly high achieving Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), now coasting through ho-hum day-to-day life as an accountant passed up for promotion, hasn’t seen him for two decades. Bob regards Calvin as an old friend; really, he was the only person at school who was nice to him.

Calvin asks how the flabby caterpillar he used to know managed to transform into this buff butterfly. It’s easy, Bob says, in one of those rare moments when it’s not entirely clear to what extent the actor or the character is speaking. You just spend six hours in the gym a day, every day, for twenty consecutive years.

He beams and charms but Calvin, like the audience, has little idea who this character is or what he’s capable of achieving. The film coasts off that lack of knowledge – we see Bob humiliated by bullies at school early on, and nothing more – for nearly the entirety of its running time.

If the marketing materials for Central Intelligence suggest standard-rate, action hi jinx odd couple comedy, the film maintains a refreshing air of unpredictability. We assume things will wrap up neatly for Calvin, a Ben Stiller-esque straight guy character, but Bob’s erratic behaviour makes the story difficult to second guess.

When CIA agents knock on Calvin’s door and ask questions about Bob, who has just slept over on his couch, we learn he is a wanted and potentially dangerous man embroiled in something to do with vast amounts of money in offshore accounts. This is apparently the reason he has reached out to Calvin, who has skills necessary to help get his hands on the moolah.

Calvin tries to extricate himself from increasingly dangerous situations, but Bob appears everywhere: in his office at work, even pretending to be a new marriage counsellor enlisted by Calvin’s wife.

Johnson’s physical presence notwithstanding (I suspect the screenplay, penned by a handful of writers, bended to accommodate the star rather than being conceived with him in mind) it is the kind of role Cary Grant would have relished. A capricious character whose motives are unclear, offering a deceptive amount of scope for the actor to bounce around and riff in.

Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are a surprise delight: the most effective comedy pairing in recent memory, with a cracking odd couple chemistry. The script affords them interesting ways to go beyond scratching cartoony surfaces. In a scene set on a light aircraft, Bob turns off the engine and pretends they are about to crash in order to extract from his Calvin his greatest regret in life: a way of getting to the emotional nub of the moment without switching tone from drama to comedy.

Bookend high school-themed moments are a let-down, particularly a reunion scene that devolves into an everybody-dance-now cheese fest, like something out of Shrek. But at its best Central Intelligence has the fizz and crackle of an old school Hollywood screwball comedy. Not, perhaps, what one might expect of Dwayne Johnson, whose bulging bod is not the only thing the guy is working hard at. Johnson is now a bona fide comic actor whose expanding range continues to impress.

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