The new action-comedy Central Intelligence proposes a seemingly unhinged CIA agent (played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) embroiling a straight-laced neurotic (Kevin Hart) in life-threatening intrigue. What at first appears to be a fresh character dynamic turns out to be clever plagiarism of the 1979 action-comedy classic The In-Laws, in which a seemingly unhinged CIA agent (Peter Falk) embroils a straight-laced neurotic (Alan Arkin) in life-threatening intrigue.
There's enough difference here, of course, to keep Central Intelligence a legally justified ripoff—pardon me, unstated homage—such as the replacement of family ties and a wedding with a classmate bond and a pending reunion, or Hart's character being an accountant rather than a dentist, but the comic-narrative DNA of Andrew Bergman's revered In-Laws script remains unmistakeable. To be fair, though, while Johnson and Hart are no Falk and Arkin, the contemporary stars have both individual comic brio and shared chemistry.
Johnson plays Robby Weirdicht, established in a twenty-years-earlier flashback as an obese misfit partially rescued by Hart's "Most Likely to Succeed" Calvin Joiner, a Big Man on Campus revered as "The Golden Jet." Two decades later, Joiner frets about being "the guy who peaked in high school" as he's passed over for promotion and faces couples counseling with his high-school-sweetheart wife Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). Weirdicht resurfaces, self-reinvented as buff, uber-enthusiastic optimist Bob Stone: still nerdy (given to phraseology like "hunky dory) but now intimidating (his Facebook likes include guns, cinnamon pancakes, and unicorns).
"Stone"'s deliberately bland name belies his CIA agency, currently compromised by accusations that he's a traitor code-named "The Black Badger." On the hunt for Stone is former colleague Pamela Harris (an amusingly deadpan Amy Ryan). It's one of Central Intelligence's considerable strengths that director/co-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, We're the Millers) encourages so many players to bring the funny. The usually braying Hart, here winningly restrained, technically plays the "straight man" to zany Johnson, and Ryan the "straight woman" to both leads, but you wouldn't know it from the laughs all three pull.
At nearly two hours, Central Intelligence's character dynamic and predictable formula become wearisome long before every scripted loose end gets neatly tied in a bow. The action, too, suffers as the film drags on, poorly shot and edited in comparison to the an early pair of set pieces establishing Stone's bona fides. At least the fat-shaming joke that kicks off the film quickly yields to an anti-bully theme, and even if the material's not always up to the title's ironic reference to wit, the cast and their director carry the day with a good stock of laughs.