"Central Intelligence" is dumb in all the right ways, and also a bit smarter than you might expect. It jams together two frequently incompatible Hollywood modes — the comedy and the action movie — and somehow doesn't wind up feeling like an oil-and-water exercise: It's more like oil and paint thinner. It's a '90s nostalgia trip, a rambunctious spy thriller and a knucklehead bromance rolled into one, and as disjointed as that sounds, the movie locates in all three stories a single, unifying thread of male insecurity. But rather than drowning in macho self-pity — or its natural byproduct, crudely misogynist caricature — it throws off a weirdly disarming sweetness.
That's due almost entirely to the movie's stars, Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson, whose game and likable odd-couple pairing — it's a bit like casting a hedgehog opposite a refrigerator — seems almost inevitable in retrospect. With Hart already having starred opposite Ice Cube, Josh Gad, Will Ferrell and Ice Cube again (none of them to particularly memorable effect), surely it was only a matter of time before the mountainous slab formerly known as the Rock wound up on his dance card.
Happily, there turns out to be more to this particular duo than their 13-inch height difference (though the gag where Johnson squeezes into a set of Hart-sized pajamas is pretty priceless). Not every screenwriter would have had the inspiration to have these two naturally appealing and well-established performers play against type, making Hart the rational, straight-arrow type and forcing Johnson to shoulder the lion's share of the laughs. It's a dumb idea in the abstract that turns out to be surprisingly smart in the execution. (The script is written by Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen and the movie's director, Rawson Marshall Thurber.)
And so Hart plays Calvin, a mopey accountant who's not looking forward to his 20-year high school reunion; once the smartest, most athletic and popular guy on campus, he's now happily married to his class sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet) but has otherwise fallen short of the "Most Likely to Succeed" designation conferred on him by his classmates. Those students were not quite as kind to Robby (Johnson), an overweight, over-bullied outcast who was last seen being dragged naked onto the floor of their school's crowded gym, the literal butt of a cruel senior prank. In that moment, Calvin was the only one who showed him a moment's decency, an act that Robby clearly hasn't forgotten when he suddenly resurfaces two decades later — now slimmed down, sporting a big grin and an even bigger set of muscles, and hoping to renew their friendship.
The plot, which is at once nonsensically busy and fairly predictable, can be dispensed with quickly. It gives away nothing to note that Robby — or Bob, as he now calls himself — turns out to be a rogue CIA agent who desperately needs Calvin's mad accounting skills to track down a particularly lazy MacGuffin. Nor will it surprise anyone to learn that Bob drags Calvin, kicking and screaming, into a confusing labyrinth of intrigue and betrayal, forcing the two of them to go on the run from the Agency (led by an excellent, coolly ruthless Amy Ryan), which suspects Bob of having murdered his partner.
More importantly, it will spoil none of your amusement to hear that Bob spends a good chunk of the picture wearing a very cute unicorn T-shirt, or that he stores his state-of-the-art spy gear in a fanny pack. (His regular costume changes are among the movie's most reliable sources of humor.) Johnson may be enjoying a comic breather in between his contributions to the "Fast & Furious" franchise, but here he's playing the rare character you might actually care to see in a sequel — a professional undercover killing machine who, deep down, remains the same shy, sensitive, traumatized, "Sixteen Candles"-obsessed worrywart he was in high school.
Having previously directed the hilarious "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" (2004) and the not-so-hilarious "We're the Millers" (2013), Thurber has consistently showed a natural affinity for misfits and outcasts. He also seems to have figured out that Hart is easiest to take not when he's in manic motormouth mode, but instead when he's cast as a smart, competent but easily flustered individual — someone who can be counted on every so often to unleash a monologue of ingeniously improvised rage.
Perhaps the most disarming conceit of "Central Intelligence" is that Calvin and Bob's banter, even at its most combative, is predicated on a kind of mutual admiration. These two guys genuinely like, even idolize, each other, and it's telling that some of their funniest line exchanges — "You're like Jason Bourne in jorts!" "You're like a snack-size Denzel!" — are compliments rather than insults.
That sets an appreciably convivial tone for the rest of this enjoyably thrown-together movie, which scores laughs even in scenes that feel like complete non sequiturs. There's the annoying co-worker (Ryan Hansen) who speaks in hashtags. Jason Bateman, a master at playing smiling sociopaths, utterly obliterates his one big scene as Bob's old high-school nemesis. The soundtrack is pure Generation X catnip — yes, there will be House of Pain — but, as with almost all the retro pop-cultural footnotes here, it seems an honest and affectionate expression of the characters' longing for their glory days.
I cringed slightly at the violent shootout that lays waste to Calvin's workplace; for obvious reasons, the sight of an office getting sprayed with bullets while civilians duck for cover isn't the easiest spectacle to digest this week (even if Hart, Johnson and company vary their arsenal using knives and coffee pots). Blame it on bad timing, or maybe just bad filmmaking: Even under ideal circumstances, the third-rate action-thriller shenanigans would be by far the least intelligent aspect of "Central Intelligence." Fortunately, the moment passes and the laughs continue. You can forgive a lot when a movie's Hart and its Johnson are in the right place.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In wide release