Sunday, 31 July 2016

Central Intelligence (2016) - Movie Review

After my rather paranoia-fuelled experience concerning The Angry Birds Movie, I thought I was past the point of feeling like a given film actively had it in for me. Of course, we have at least 3 films this year featuring official nemesis of the blog Kevin Hart, so I’m maintaining that there’s someone in this world who has a grudge against me personally. This is not helped by the almost gloriously insipid tag line on the poster, which triggers my lame pun allergy something chronic. But hey, even with my misgivings about Angry Birds, I still walked away from that film somewhat pleased that I at least watched it. Am I likely to get such a revelation on this one? Chance would be a fine thing, but quite frankly, I’m in that kind of mood where I’m willing to give a chance to prove itself.

The plot: Calvin (Kevin Hart), in the lead-up to his 20-year high school reunion, is contacted by Bob (Dwayne Johnson), a fellow student who was incessantly bullied back in school. As they reconnect, Calvin discovers that Bob is wanted by the CIA, in particular agent Pamela (Amy Ryan), under charges of treason and conspiracy to sell government secrets. Bob maintains his innocence, while dragging Calvin into the whole debacle, but Calvin just doesn’t know who can be trusted.

It’s standard issue Kevin Hart once again, with only slight variation when it comes to the few jokes he gets to crush into the ground. Moving away from the Napoleon complex jokes at his own expense, which at this point are almost literally fading into the background, he instead goes head-first into Chris Tucker 'black people don’t ____' territory. It’s lazy and Kevin Hart feels like he’s coasting on his lack of charisma on this one, not helped by how his overly long and panicked explanations of what he just saw seconds earlier stay perfectly intact here. However, even without stepping out of his deeply-carved niche, he still manages to fit okay in the film as the straight man.

This is probably helped by just how… I don’t even know what Dwayne Johnson is in this thing. The man is made of likeable and the film knows it, which is why his casting on its own ends up helping the overall product as it ends up building on one of the film’s main themes. Basically, he is that over-the-top and just strange to watch that he is a walking mindfrag. For the record, a man in a unicorn muscle shirt talking about how much he loves Sixteen Candles, while looking like he’s about to sprout wings from how huge his shoulders are, is how far they had to go to make Kevin Hart look like the stable one by comparison. Alongside our leads, we have Amy Ryan as a rather stock hard-nosed CIA agent, Jason Bateman as a guiltily funny asshole, which just goes to show that the man is at his best when he’s allowed to be straight-up evil, and Aaron Paul… you know, his entire casting in it of itself is a spoiler, but credit where it’s due in that he doesn’t come across as much of a weeny as he has before in action films.

Okay, before we go any further, I just want to reiterate that I was seriously not looking forward to this one and that is all on Kevin Hart’s shoulders. However, it seems like this time that the filmmakers were determined to make sure that he was given sturdy-as-hell groundwork to build up from; beyond the inclusion of Johnson, this film is full of surprising competent names. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber may not have the best overall track record, and I wasn’t all that crazy about his last effort We’re The Millers, but the guy definitely has a knack for underdog stories like with Dodgeball, something that comes in very handy on this one. This film also marks the writing debut of Ike Barinholtz, former Seltzerberg inmate and current go-to guy for supporting stories about adults who can’t bear to grow up. Oh, and Angry Birds. Co-writing with fellow Mindy Project writer David Strassen as well as RMT, the writing puts the plot on the back burner for a lot of the film while emphasising the antics of Hart and Johnson. With how both of those elements turned out, that was definitely a wise move. And on the composition front, we have Theodore Shapiro whom has already shown ability with bringing out the ludicrousness in comedic-action flicks like Spy and Zoolander 2, and Ludwig Göransson, one of my favourite music producers and a guy I will always be happy to see get work. We have a lot of good chefs in this kitchen, but do they all work together is the big question. Honestly, they kind of do.

When I say that the plot is pretty much an afterthought, I’m not saying this like it’s a bad thing. It’s of the Mission: Impossible/Bourne clan of films, involving a rogue agent trying to clear his own name, and the ending plot reveal is pretty dang obvious for anyone who knows their Agatha Christie Big Book Of Murder Mystery Tropes. You can buy it from the same store as the Sequels Rulebook. However, even with that said, this film definitely has a better idea on how to utilise said plot that quite a few recent efforts have made use of. For one, because of how bizarre Bob Stone comes across, it actually lends credence to the idea that maybe he is the bad guy. I mean, yeah he’s likeable and he can whup some arse when it’s called for, but his very PC demeanour comes across as someone either putting on a very obvious front or just hiding a lot of pent-up aggression. Or possibly both. To make things even weirder, even with the ending being as obvious as it is, Bob, his dialogue and the dialogue said about him genuinely make it difficult to pin down if he is trustworthy. He’s so nice and such an awesome dude, but man does he have issues.

Now, bear in mind that I said this film kind of works, and this is because of two main factors. The first being that Bob may be entertaining but he nudges the lines between likeable and annoying way too much to solidly recommend it solely because of him. The second one is that the main ‘point’ of the film is incredibly boring. It’s the Cinderella wish fulfilment scenario, where we see how a person who got trodden on by life managed to bounce back better than ever, and it being framed against a high school backdrop just makes it even more irritating. We get it: High school reputation doesn’t equate to post-high school success. Hell, with how inherently awful high school is, I’m willing to bet that pretty much everyone ends up better off after it than during. Yes, even bag-o’-dicks Trevor; at least his personality led him to a form of financial comfort. By the way, bonus points on featuring a Scientologist character and, rather than just making him insane, show him as the egotistical douchebag that a lot of them just happen to be.

It’s incessantly basic and, given how the whole 'man, school sucks but it’s bound to get better afterwards' thing has become the status quo nowadays, it just reeks of stuff we’ve seen verbatim many times before. It probably doesn’t help that the guy who is meant to embody the optimistic side of this, that being Bob and his post-school transformation, is portrayed as someone so sheltered and wrong-headed that he ended up clinging onto the one guy who showed him any sympathy in school, that being Calvin. Yeah, true friends will often last for far longer than the 3-6 years of high school insanity, but there’s a difference between real friendship and obsessive stalking. Bob listed Calvin as his emergency contact with the CIA, despite only having really interacted with him once; you can see which side he falls onto.

All in all, while I definitely have a soft spot for this particular feature, that is in spite of its rather glaring issues. The plot, even if it is portrayed in refreshing ways in parts, is still a head-on collision between two different ideas that, especially nowadays, are far too common to stay interesting. That said, this really is a testament to how good The Rock can be when given the right character, as his natural charisma combined with how unhinged he is written manage to salvage far more than it really should with how well they meld together. We still have at least one more Kevin Hart film to deal with this year, and this showcasing of how he is at least capable of working when surrounded by the right elements makes me just a little less hesitant about what he will bring us next.

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