Teaming up the funniest guy and the biggest action star in the world in a story with heart.
Pairing Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart as unlikely former high school friends, and even unlikelier spy-busting, world-saving, accidental partners on the run, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Central Intelligence offers a fun and fast-paced mash-up of comedy and explosive action.
“I’ve loved action movies my whole life and I’ve been wanting to make one since I was about, oh, eight years old,” Thurber says. “This has been a lot of fun.”
The story follows a one-time bullied geek, Bob (Johnson), who grew up to be a lethal CIA agent, coming home for his high school reunion. Claiming to be on a top-secret case, Bob enlists the help of former “big man on campus” Calvin (Hart), now an accountant who misses his glory days. But before the staid numbers-cruncher realizes what he’s getting into, it’s too late to get out, as his increasingly unpredictable new friend drags him through a world of shoot-outs, double-crosses and espionage that could get them both killed in more ways than Calvin can count.
Directed Thurber (We’re the Millers, Dodgeball) from a screenplay by Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen and Thurber; from a story by Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen, the film also plays on a reversal of expectations – both for its main characters and the actors who bring them to life.
“What really caught my attention and appealed to me was the idea of taking this premise and flipping it on its ear,” says Johnson, “putting me in more of the comedy role and putting Kevin, one of the world’s most successful comedians, a guy who’s just on fire, in more of the straight role. So we’re both thrown into a scenario where we have to stretch and work some different muscles, and then somewhere it all intersects and we meet in the middle.”
“I’m pretty much the straight man in this film and Dwayne carries the comedy load, which we thought would be refreshing and fun, and something different,” adds Hart. “Plus, you still get the Dwayne everyone loves to see, the guy who can beat the living s**t out of people. But the combination of DJ and myself, that’s where we win. The energy is amazing.”
It’s that, and their unbeatable chemistry that makes “Central Intelligence” such a ride.
Thurber, a successful comedy director marking his first foray into the action realm, declares, “My advice to anybody who is going to make an action comedy for the first time would be to put Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in it, because it will make your job a lot easier. Get the funniest guy and the biggest action star in the world and put them together.”
Referencing the stars’ 12-inch height differential as an ongoing visual punch line, Thurber recalls their first meeting prior to production. “They may be different shapes and sizes but they’re cut from the same cloth. Seeing them sitting across the table from each other or standing side by side, I mean, it’s just a layup. They’re so great together, so charismatic as individuals and as a team, and so much alike in their generosity and the way they take the work seriously but don’t take themselves so seriously. That level of chemistry isn’t a function of directing, or writing, even with the best scenarios and situations; it’s pixie dust. It’s something you cross your fingers and hope to get.”
“Rawson really understands tone and timing,” Hart continues. “It’s not just the rhythm of the action, it’s how everything meshes. The segues are seamless, the writing is smart, and there were small moments that we were allowed to make big moments because we had a great cast to work with and Rawson gave us the room to play.”
Almost as maddening to Calvin is how Bob never loses his cool or megawatt optimism as they careen from one life-threatening situation to another. He also never loses his admiration for his captive sidekick. “You have one guy who loves action, thrives on it, and that’s Bob,” says Johnson. “The other guy absolutely hates it. He’s resistant. He doesn’t want to go, and that’s oftentimes a great set-up for a buddy, action comedy. But there’s a difference. The coolest element about the whole thing is that Bob still has a real affection in a hero-worship way toward Calvin. It was like that in high school and it’s never gone away, despite how their lives have changed. I love the idea that these are two grown men now, and Bob has become this strong, powerful dude, but he still looks at Calvin like he’s the big hero, like, ‘You’re the best. You’re the Golden Jet. I love you, man.’”
Conversely, even though Bob can now clear a bar full of lowlifes with a sweep of his arm or out-maneuver a SWAT team by weaponizing office supplies on the fly, Hart notes, “Their relationship evolves because Calvin starts to see there’s still a level of innocence to Bob. As they build a degree of trust, Calvin realizes that it’s all or nothing, and he has to make the decision whether or not to give it his all and become a real partner.”
By offering a snapshot view of these two in their younger days before joining them as adults in the here-and-now, the story packs a measure of truth that anyone who has lived through that time can relate to, whether the experience for them was good, bad or indifferent. And let’s face it: it’s never indifferent.
“What I really loved about the premise is the recognition that everyone is defined to some degree by high school,” states producer Scott Stuber. “All kinds of adult damage is what you bring from your childhood, and you either fix it and evolve or you’re still compensating for it with some kind of extreme behavior. I thought that was an interesting idea to explore in a big, broad comedy. For Bob, he’s done all kinds of things to show that he’s overcome what happened to him…but has he fully fixed the problem?”
It’s a question the story poses in a scene where the apparently bulletproof new Bob encounters his old nemesis from the school gym and things don’t turn out quite as expected. “The joke is, even though Robbie has transformed himself into this guy who’s all muscles, on the inside he’s still the same kid with the same insecurities and awkwardness,” offers Thurber. “If you don’t work on the inside, you don’t change.”
For all their many differences, then, Bob and Calvin are bonded in their drive to prove something that’s been eating at them for two decades – although for entirely different reasons – and may be essential to helping each other figure that out. So, “As hair-raising as it gets for poor Calvin, it’s what he needs at this point in his life,” notes producer Peter Principato. “He’s lost his mojo, he thinks it’s all over but Bob doesn’t look at him that way. Friends let you find things in yourself that you don’t normally see until you get to see it through their eyes, and it reminds you of who you are.”
Allowing for such moments of insight while its principals roll with the punches, “Central Intelligence” recognizes some of the larger issues that lurk beneath the surface of every grown-up hero, such as: standing up to bullies, becoming the person you want to be and not being limited by your past. “It has some good underlying themes,” Thurber says. “Plus, there’s no shortage of Dwayne Johnson action in this picture, and Kevin Hart can’t help making you laugh left, right and center, so I think we get the best of all worlds.”
“We wanted to keep the mystery of ‘Who is Bob?’ going for as long as possible, as it creates more tension and stress for Calvin,” says Ike Barinholtz, who, with partner David Stassen, wrote the story and shares screenwriting credit with Thurber. Adds Stassen, “Kevin plays Calvin’s terror and uneasiness so well that the more uncomfortable he is, the more we enjoy it.”
For Thurber, telling the tale from Calvin’s perspective was essential for both the narrative flow and the comedy. “It’s been said there are two types of stories,” he posits. “There’s the sane man in the insane world and the insane man in the sane world. Kevin is playing the sane man in the insane world and in that sense he’s the proxy for the audience and we’re seeing through his eyes. If he’s not sure whether Bob is telling the truth, or whether Harris is telling the truth, then neither are we.”
One of the film’s memorable stunt pieces is a bullpen shootout at Calvin’s office, where an absurdly composed Bob leads the apoplectic Calvin through a gauntlet of destruction, against a phalanx of CIA agents who quickly infiltrate the space in a no-holds-barred attempt to bring him down. The longest continuous sequence in the film, it took six full days to stage and shoot, and culminates in a mid-air exit off the 20th floor – accompanied by Bob’s triumphant rebel yell and a range of less enthusiastic sounds from Calvin.
“The scope of that sequence and some of the gags involved were Rawson’s take on it,” supervising stunt coordinator Allan Poppleton acknowledges. “You start with a guy cowering in a mail cart that’s getting pushed around the office amidst all this chaos, which is funny by itself. Then add some of the apparatus we’re using in the kitchen as things Dwayne’s character picks up to use as weapons, whether it’s a knife, a coffee pot, an extension cord or a banana, and it’s that combination of elements that makes it special.”
“It had to be a banana,” Thurber quips. “Bananas are classic. We did our best to make the action as fun and frothy as possible. We’re not going punch-for-punch with a James Bond film, but we tried to be as clever as we could, while going for the thrills at the same time.
“When we’re doing a comedy scene, my brain is always buzzing, trying to think of a different punch line, or trying this or that,” he explains. “On the action side, there’s so much planning and preparation that goes into it that, by the time you’re in the execution, you have to know exactly what you’re doing. When you blow up a car, you’re not thinking, ‘You know what would be a funnier way to blow this up?’”
“You have to embrace who you are,” Johnson concurs. “When you’re 14, 15, 16 years old, it’s tough. You have the weight of the world on your shoulders; there are identity issues and insecurities and we all go through it. I’m here to tell you the most powerful thing you can be is yourself… And if you happen to have a fanny pack handy, wear that sucker with pride!”
Bringing all of these elements together and bringing it all home for audiences, Thurber concludes, “I hope it’s a great time at the movies – a lot of laughs, a little bit of a puzzle, just a big delicious comedy cheeseburger. And I hope that, at the end, people will feel something, too, because this is a story with heart.”