Dwayne Johnson, the actor otherwise known as “The Rock,” might never escape the stage name that’s followed him from the WWE ring to the big screen, and with roles in worldwide hits like Hercules and the Fast and the Furious franchise, his successful career as an action star has largely made a case for his legacy as an actor to be cemented by the same machismo garishness his former wrestling moniker implies.
Central Intelligence, however, despite featuring explosions, car chases, shoot-outs, and muscle shirts, explores a softer, vulnerable side of the 44-year old. Johnson gives a surprisingly varied performance, one which requires an obvious (albeit broad) range to come alive beneath the shallow layers of comedic stunts and kinetic action. While not necessarily a diamond-in-the-rough itself, Central Intelligence proves that Johnson has always been at the center of his own ring, in more ways than one. It just took the rest of us (and Hollywood) a little longer to notice.
Johnson plays a bullied, obese teen who, fueled by a distaste for the cruel-hearted scum of the world, ultimately blossoms into a tanned-and-toned, lethal CIA agent. He returns home for his 20-year high school reunion, thrusting his only friend (and former classmate), a hotshot-jock-turned-lowly-accountant (Kevin Hart), into a high-stakes mission involving a race for secret codes, numerous double-crosses, a slighted Aaron Paul, and an epic cameo from an A-list actress in its closing moments.
The hows and whys of the quest at hand aren’t exactly important, as Central Intelligence is far more concerned with squeezing its leading men together—often literally—and kicking back to enjoy the juice, and that’s a wise move. Paired with the scrawny, squeaky-voiced Hart, Johnson feeds off the inherent comedy in the juxtaposition of their bodies, making the film’s well-timed gags and physical humor work better than they should, way more often than they should.
With three screenwriters (including The Mindy Project‘s Ike Barinholtz), Central Intelligence often feels unfocused, yet without sacrificing a certain tawdry charm, held together by Johnson’s magnetism as he connects with a different side of his persona, one that makes him an appealing star and not so much a respected actor. When he’s not puffing his chest and flexing his muscles as an everyman hero in films like last year’s San Andreas, his comedic chops and warm charisma lend themselves well to featherweight material, however superficial Central Intelligence.
Still, in its dutiful crusade against antagonists of all shades, from school bullies to corrupt CIA agents, Central Intelligence deserves respect for attempting to engage with timely thematic material as much as it wants us to surrender and chuckle at the gags. It’s a straightforward flick, hawking fluff in an unabashed way and, especially at a time when it seems as if reality around us is overrun with insurmountable darkness, sometimes all you need is to watch The Rock knock someone out with a banana. C+