On a blisteringly hot July day in 2015, Den of Geek joined a handful of writers from other outlets to visit the set of Central Intelligence on a soundstage just outside of Boston. Throughout the day, the group spoke with director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re The Millers) and co-stars Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart about the delicate balance of action and comedy, the unique chemistry of the co-stars, and the long shadow that the ‘90s casts over the movie.
We were on set roughly a week before filming was due to wrap, and were taken through a set made up like an office…one that had seen better days. Light fixtures dangled, water dripped from a few bits and pieces, desks and monitors were overturned, and it was clear that something had gone down here.
The premise of Central Intelligence certainly lends itself to this kind of scale. Dwayne Johnson is Bob Weirdicht, a geeky kid who was bullied so severely in high school that he grew up to become an assassin for the CIA. He returns for his high school reunion while on a mission, and seeks out his high school hero, Calvin (Kevin Hart). Calvin is no badass, though, and soon finds himself dragged into the kind of action movie chaos that would terrify a normal person.
While we waited for our time with the talent, we were planted in a conference room, also part of the office set. This, too, had been put through some action movie paces, as the floor to ceiling windows and glass door had been blown out, and there were remnants of sugar glass visible around the perimeter. From the looks of it, Central Intelligence leans heavily on the action side of the action-comedy genre, with Thurber specifically mentioning films like Rush Hour, Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, and Running Scared as inspirations.
“I’ve always wanted to make an action adventure movie,” director Rawson Marshall Thurber told us. “I grew up on Lucas and Spielberg pictures and so I sort of always wanted to do that but I have always loved comedy, that’s where I started. This felt like a nice way to transition into action comedy…we are trying to balance it and we spent a lot of time trying to make the action cool and interesting.”
“It’s a lot of action,” Kevin Hart said later. “It’s not that I have gotten really physical, it’s just my character gets thrown all over the place, thrown out of windows, I am in car accidents, and I am jumping over shit that I don’t want to jump over but I have no choice. It’s definitely what you want to do when you have the idea of doing an action film.”
“I would say that I have had fun with doing all of the things that I am doing, my stunt man is amazing in making me look good in all of the stunts that he has been required to do,” Hart said. “We get to stand next to The Rock and when stunts come up, no matter what you are going to look good, not only does he have a great stuntman but the stuff that he does, he’s done it so long and he’s polished. But to step up your game and just come off of just as good as he does.”
Action movie veteran Dwayne Johnson described the action as “fantastic,” and praised Thurber’s approach. “Rawson wanted to come as a director and really elevate the game of action in a comedy,” he said. “He really wanted to make sure we were rooted in some ‘holy shit’ type of action. That was music to my ears.”
Both the action and the comedy are embodied in the backstory of Johnson’s character, the unfortunately named Robbie (now Bob) Weirdicht, who, according to Johnson, has “a lot of quirks and idiosyncracies” because of how he was “bullied unmercifully” in high school. One particular incident (glimpsed in the trailer) leads him to leave high school, and ultimately become a top operative (and assassin) in the CIA.
“The idea was if I was going to go back into the genre of action comedy, how do we bring this to an audience in a way that it’s not something that they’ve necessarily seen?” Johnson said. “How do we take a model that’s been successful over the years whether it’s been Trading Places or 48 Hours to Lethal Weapon and things like Rush Hour. So how do we take the model and kinda flip it in a way and present it in a way that had never been done before? The idea of playing a guy who was unmercifully bullied in high school, obese, different, and then that guy then becoming who he becomes.”
But the character of Robbie wasn’t always supposed to be the kind of action movie badass you associate with an actor like Dwayne Johnson. “The joke was Bob was a heavy set guy, out of shape but he could still kick ass,” said Thurber. “So the joke was fat Jason Bourne. It’s a good joke, and when our producer Scott Stuber said you know who would be great for this? Dwayne. But when I sat with it and thought about it for a second it sort of made sense the former fat kid from high school who got bullied transformed himself into Dwayne, into The Rock.”
“I think the joke is different,” Thurber said. “I think it’s actually better. The joke is that though he looks like Dwayne Johnson on the outside, on the inside he is still the same sort of fat kid from high school that got picked on and bullied, so he still has all those insecurities and all those vulnerabilities even as this 250 lbs of muscle armor is built on top. It was such a sweet endearing way to play the character and I couldn’t imagine it another way.”
We witnessed some of this in the scene being filmed while we were there. While I can only guess that Bob Weirdicht is responsible for the destruction evident all around us in that office building set, there was a very different side of the character on display during what was being shot, one that very much still carries the scars of what he went through in high school. Thurber confirms that Central Intelligence has an “anti-bullying” message, but also that “the most important thing you can be is yourself, which is what Bob kind of embodies. Those are the thematic guide rails that we have been on in the film.”
But while Robbie dealt with all of that by becoming, well, the Rock, those “quirks and idiosyncracies” that Johnson referred to manifest as a kind of innocence you wouldn’t normally associate with a trained assassin. “Tom Hanks in Big was a big reference for us,” Johnson said. “A little Bill Murray in What About Bob?.”
It also results in Bob being a little stuck in the ’90s. “His whole world kind of got frozen in amber of lucite of ice or whatever your preference at that moment in High School and most of it stems from that,” Thurber said. “We did want to make it look like he stepped out of a time machine from ‘96 but it’s all kind of connected to that world.”
And there was definitely evidence of that. We passed through the wardrobe department, which was covered in photos of ‘90s clothing and hairstyles. You can spot a little of this in the flashback sequence in the trailer, and it’s evident in things like Bob’s Public Enemy t-shirt.
“With the ‘90s, it’s the fanny pack, he loves Public Enemy, loves 90210. Continuously quotes things throughout the ‘90s,” Johnson said. “But there is a switch when bad guys come around. He gets down to business. There’s so much fun and constructing this thing, working with Kevin, making sure our characters are balanced. Working with Rawson too has been great. It reminds me how fun the job can be. It’s like, “Okay what from the ‘90s did we love?’ We loved the Ghetto Boys, you name it. Throwing all these quotes out.”
Kevin Hart cautioned that the movie doesn’t go too overboard with the nostalgia factor, though. “As far as the flashbacks go, you don’t want to go too crazy. I think you want to keep it grounded,” Hart said. “We already have a crazy premise that we are doing and right now DJ has done a great job pulling off the character that he is pulling off. You believe the guy, you believe our relationship. I wouldn’t want to do anything that deters people from paying attention to what they are supposed to. I make sure I keep my stuff subdued where it should be subdued because ultimately it is about us both looking good and making him look good makes me look good and him the same.”
Hart also spoke about the difference between Calvin and his work in another action comedy, Ride Along, where is Ben Barber is “comedy relief, it’s more of the bitch, the guy who wants so much but is afraid to do. But in Central Intelligence it’s a different level of that. It’s a different level of a guy who is in a position he doesn’t want to be in and at some point has to build up enough courage and enough balls to deal with the situation and make right by the situation to grasp hold of it and making decisions that matter.”
We’ll have more from Rawson Marshall Thurber, Kevin Hart, and Dwayne Johnson on Central Intelligence in the coming weeks.
Central Intelligence opens on June 17th.