Truth-in-advertising alert: There’s hardly any intelligence to be found in “Central Intelligence.” Those glimmers that exist come mostly from Dwayne Johnson, who turns in an enthusiastic and witty performance as a one-time high school nerd who has morphed into a guy who looks like The Rock. The film itself is painless, strained, occasionally amusing, and utterly disposable — just another studio buddy comedy/action movie that forgot where it put the script.
The pairing of Johnson (massive and graceful) and Kevin Hart (sawed-off and yappy) is its own visual joke, of course, one that keeps you watching and hoping things will improve. (They don’t.) A prologue set in 1996 uses impressively creepy CGI techniques to juvenate Hart into a high school senior named Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner, god of his graduating class, and Johnson into Robbie Wierdicht, a much-bullied fat kid who Calvin rescues from a moment of prime humiliation.
Fast forward to today, and Calvin has lost his BMOC mojo to become an unhappy low-level accountant, married to high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). Robbie reappears in Calvin’s life beefcaked up into Bob Stone, a CIA agent who’s either in danger, gone rogue, or off his rocker. There are mysterious computer codes to be retrieved and assassins to be killed; Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) tries and fails to class up the joint as Stone’s grimly efficient agency handler.
Hardly any of this makes sense, and Rawson Marshall Thurber directs the way he did in “Dodgeball” and “We’re the Millers” — gamely but without a whit of skill. (The action sequences are a particular hash.) So why am I maybe recommending “Central Intelligence” as a video on demand pick in a few months, for a night when there’s absolutely nothing else on? Because of Johnson, who plays Stone as an action hero who still looks in the mirror and sees a teenage geek with an unhealthy “Sixteen Candles” fixation.
Who would have thought back in his pro wrestling days that The Rock would someday become one of our more likably nuanced comic actors? The joke of Johnson’s persona is the deftness with which this human cinderblock moves and the wry sensitivity he gives to his line readings. Bob is capable of dispatching legions of Uzi-wielding assailants but around Calvin, his long-ago high school savior, he reverts into a worshipful puppy. It’s as if Duckie from “Pretty in Pink” had ended up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body.
By contrast, Hart has little to do but schpritz and shriek, which he does ably and to diminishing returns. “Central Intelligence” is maybe most notable — to local audiences, anyway — for its geographic confusion. Despite being shot entirely in and around Boston, and despite the heroes traveling to our fair city for an action climax on and below the Boston Common, most of the movie supposedly takes place in Baltimore. This can get awfully perplexing, such as an early scene in which Calvin and Bob stand up to a bunch of Bahstan-accented, “bro”-talking bullies — one of them played by Easton’s Nate Richman, a former BC footballer — in a “Baltimore” bar that looks like it was done up for St. Paddy’s Day.
Best to think of this, perhaps, as a random slice of Movie Boston — that home of the bean and the cod, where directors talk only to minions, and the locals will always get scrod.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Written by Ike Barenholtz, David Stassen, Rawson Marshall Thurber. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Aaron Paul. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 107 minutes. PG-13 (crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.