From the start of his film career, Dwayne Johnson has pursued two paths simultaneously. He’s done the big action spectacles — your Scorpion Kings, your Fasts and/or Furiouses — and he’s done broad comedies. Sometimes, he combines the two, like with this weekend’s really bad Red Notice. Of late, he’s especially fumbled the comedy half of the equation: I’m more partial to Jungle Cruise than most, but even I recognize it’s a pretty strained action-adventure whirligig that tries stuffing funny moments in between all the belabored theme-park spectacle. I really liked Jumanji: The Next Level, but in terms of pure laughs, I don’t think he’s ever made anything as goofy and endearing as 2016’s Central Intelligence. The fact that it’s a deeply silly movie does nothing to diminish my enjoyment of it — frankly, that’s part of its charm.
The film was directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who was previously responsible for Dodgeball and Meet the Millers, indicators of his lowbrow, every-dude style of comedy. In Central Intelligence, Johnson is Robbie, who as a kid was overweight and picked on — by comparison, Calvin was the big man on campus even though, because he’s played by Kevin Hart, he’s actually fairly diminutive. But Calvin’s popularity never made him a jerk — he wasn’t one of the bullies teasing Robbie. Those high-school days are long gone, however, and Calvin hasn’t thought about Robbie in forever — that is, until one day in adulthood when Calvin (now a disillusioned office drone) gets hit up on social media by “Bob Stone,” who invites him to have dinner. When once-cool Calvin meets Bob, he’s shocked to discover this buff, self-assured guy. What happened to Robbie? And why is this dude so into ‘corns?
What follows is a tale of conspiracies, rogue CIA agents, bounty hunters and shout-outs to the old “Whassup?” commercials as Amy Ryan’s Agent Harris storms into Calvin’s life, insisting that his old friend is actually a dangerous loose cannon who killed his former CIA partner. (Bob told Calvin that he was a government contractor who had just been fired.) North by Northwest this ain’t, but as Calvin is forced to tag along with Bob, who swears he’s not crazy and isn’t a traitor to his country — he’s trying to stop the folks who murdered his partner — the amusing back-and-forth between the two characters gives this junky, dopey movie its rhythm. Basically, this is what happens in every scene: Bob is totally composed, while Calvin freaks out. It’s amazing how durable that strategy turns out to be.
In his comedies, Johnson tends to undercut his imposing physique by playing individuals who are insecure or overconfident — there’s always some humanizing flaw that reveals their vulnerability. In Central Intelligence, although it’s a cheap gag to depict him initially as a chubby teen, Johnson sells it by making Robbie such a sweetheart. (The joke is more that he’s deeply awkward than that he’s supposed to be fat.) So when “Bob Stone” shows up later, we never forget that there’s a little Robbie still in there — the awkward kid who wished he could be as cool as Calvin, who’s turned into a deeply dull grownup who peaked in high school. Bob doesn’t see him that way, though: Despite all his physical prowess and action skills, he’s still that endearingly dorky kid who wants to impress his buddy.
That self-deprecating quality is a large part of Johnson’s appeal. Sure, he looks like a Greek god come to life, but he works hard to seem approachable. (For instance, he’ll good-naturedly tweet with fans who, say, question the physics of his impossible jump in Skyscraper.) He radiates a charming positivity that puts people at ease. Listen, he knows he’s the Rock, but he doesn’t want to make you feel bad about it. As a result, he’s among the most amiable of movie stars — that rare celebrity you could actually imagine having a beer with.
But within Central Intelligence’s genial silliness, there’s also enough of a hint that maybe Bob isn’t telling Calvin everything — maybe he’s as deranged as Harris claims he is. For all the square-jawed heroes he plays, Johnson has the sneaky ability to convey a touch of the unhinged underneath that million-watt smile. It’s an attribute he brought to bear quite well in Michael Bay’s zany true-life crime-comedy Pain & Gain, and it’s utilized here, too, leaving us (and Calvin) not entirely sure if we can trust Bob. Even in that first meeting at the sports bar, Bob’s just a little too intense — a little too buddy-buddy ingratiating — to make you feel comfortable. His aggressive friendliness has an edge to it, and the performance is funnier as a result. Is he really that insecure boy on the inside? Or is it all a ruse concealing Bob’s far more nefarious scheme? After all, the guy is a CIA agent… maybe he’s up to something?
Central Intelligence was a surprise hit, its modest charms amplified by how much fun Johnson and Hart seemed to have playing off one another. (Just their radically different heights is funny to watch when they’re standing side-by-side bickering.) But the film’s effortless breeziness has proven hard for Johnson to replicate. His first Jumanji was a hoot, with him once again playing a nerd trapped in the Rock’s body, but especially with this weekend’s Red Notice, I often get the impression that Johnson is trying very hard to find material that validates his towering A-list status. (Tellingly, he’s been perhaps most natural since Central Intelligence in Moana just being a voice actor — there, he was all persona.) With his impressive bulk, he doesn’t always deliver an accompanying light touch — he’s both literally and figuratively too big for the films he’s in.
But he’s capable of that lightness, because it’s all over Central Intelligence. There’s a boyishness to the performance — a spark of inspiration and discovery — that’s really delightful. No one will confuse the movie with a masterpiece — and considering that Thurber’s subsequent two films with Johnson, Skyscraper and Red Notice, were the pits, it’s starting to feel more and more like an anomaly in both their careers. But if anything, that just makes Central Intelligence all the more special. Johnson does a lot of comedies, but rarely is he as naturally funny as he is here. Maybe it was hanging out with Kevin Hart. Or maybe it’s just because Bob appreciates how magical unicorns are — even though, seriously, dude, you know they’re not real, right?