LOS ANGELES, June 16, (Agencies): The words “action comedy” go together not just because the movies they describe combine action and comedy. They go together because, in a machine-tooled lark like “Central Intelligence,” each one becomes the other. The dialogue, as quick and aggressive as a punch to the face, really is a form of action; the gun battles, car crashes, and hurtling bodies are staged with a more-mayhem-the-better lightness that turns violence into something to giggle at, as if it were all transpiring in a Road Runner cartoon. At least, that’s the idea.
In “Central Intelligence,” when Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), a mild-mannered accountant coerced into becoming the partner of a rogue CIA agent, jabbers on, for the opening act or two, about how he wants nothing at all to do with this scheme (“I’m not in!” he keeps wailing; he just wants out), Hart lets his voice creep up into high Eddie Murphy dudgeon, and the words tumble out so fast that it almost stops mattering what he’s saying. It’s the comedy of controlled hysteria — the verbal equivalent of madly flailing fists. And when Dwayne Johnson, as the agent in question, gets out of a jam by slamming some guy’s head with an office refrigerator door, setting off water sprinklers and a smoke bomb, and pushing a mail cart (that contains Kevin Hart) through the plate-glass window of what must be the 20th floor, it’s all just a joke: slapstick with extra pain. Of course, the downside of the action-comedy recipe is that it risks having almost no consequence. The danger of the form is that action and comedy, instead of adding something to one another, just cancel each other out.
That’s sort of what happens in “Central Intelligence,” though you couldn’t accuse the movie of not hurtling along. It delivers — on some basic, giddy, turn-off-your-frontal-lobes level. It’s an action-comedy utensil, like “Rush Hour” crossed with an old Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-’em-up, with a few goofy added sprinkles of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” It’s the sort of movie that, in its highly formulaic way, reveals a lot about what audiences are seeking today. A scabrous buddy comedy like “The Nice Guys” appeared to have a lot going for it, but it didn’t have the right action-to-comedy ratio (there wasn’t a spatter of gunfire every eight minutes), and the characters were a tad too quirky for the genre. “Central Intelligence” goes back to basics: Kevin Hart, as talented a funnyman as he is, squawks and rails and goes scaredy-cat on cue, while Dwayne Johnson, as the undercover agent, plays a pumped-up friendly giant who’s too sensitive for his own good. The joke of both characters is right on the surface, and it stays there for an hour and 45 minutes. The movie, in other words, serves up just enough of the standard microwaved meat and potatoes of action comedy to have the potential to be a medium-size hit.
On their first day shooting “Central Intelligence,” their new spy-themed action comedy, Johnson and Hart were given an extremely difficult scene.
Difficult, meaning it was impossible not to break up laughing and ruin the shot. They were playing doctor and patient in a therapist’s office, and they were staring at each other, real close, trying not to blink or speak. For Hart especially, this was very hard to do.
“Kevin could just not keep a straight face,” says director Rawson Marshall Thurber. “We had 12 minutes of him laughing, and I was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know if we’re ever going to finish anything!’ Kevin is an assassin; he WILL make you laugh. Dwayne was a good sport, he held it together, but there’s only so much a dam can hold before it breaks.”
Thurber says they eventually nailed the scene, but “literally if you saw one more frame, you’d see Kevin break up.” As for Johnson and Hart, they say that early scene set the tone for their chemistry during the rest of the shoot.
Recently, the two actors sat down to discuss what it was like to work together — and whether there is really as much chemistry between them as it looks. Judge for yourself:
AP: Dwayne, just a quick question first — how did you like working with (“Hamilton” creator) Lin-Manuel Miranda on the music for the Disney film “Moana”?
Johnson: Oh, awesome, awesome. I mean, he’s really a brilliant guy.
Hart: Wait, was it better than working with ME?
Johnson (feigning panic): No, no! Not better than you. No one’s better than you.
Hart: I mean, not that I’m insecure about it.
Johnson: No, no.
Hart: (Not letting it go) I mean I’m OK, if it that was the thing, I’m all right with it, I’m not hurt…
AP: OK, let’s move on to that staring scene.
Johnson: It’s the funniest thing, still to this day that I have ever done, that’s ever broken me up like that. And you see it in the outtakes, it was very real.
Hart: It was me who was breaking up. 100 percent. He stayed locked in, and I just couldn’t.
Johnson: That was day one, and that was really an indication of how the rest of the movie was, for us, just in terms of chemistry and in terms of friendship. It all happened extremely quickly.
AP: Did you know each other before?
Johnson: We’d met very quickly backstage at the Teen Choice awards. It was a quick ‘Hey, good to see you, big fan, big fan,’ and we were gone. Then the opportunity came to make the movie together. And the moment we got on set, it was instantaneous.
Hart: We got lucky. We hit the ground running. The one thing that was so important was timing. Us coming across each other’s path at the awards … and fast forward to us being on set, day one, just hitting it off. We looked at each other and said, “We’ve got something special here.”