There’s little more satisfying than a comedy that doesn’t inspire high expectations but then proves a pleasant surprise, and that was 2014’s Ride Along for me. Ice Cube was a perfect foil for Kevin Hart, a moody St Bernard being worried at by an uppity chihuahua. A smash hit no one saw coming, it was bound to spawn a sequel, so here we are again two years later, but despite all the same elements being in place, there’s so much less to enjoy this time around. And I think it’s all down to a pair of sunglasses.
Yep, all the elements: same stars, same director … same story, really. Ben (Hart) is now a beat cop in the Atlanta PD, hoping to make detective one day and partner with his soon-to-be-brother-in-law James (Cube). When James has to go to Miami to follow a lead picked up off a recently arrested drug dealer, he decides to let Ben ride along again, if only so the little guy might finally realise he doesn’t have what it takes to be a detective and stop banging on about it.
In Miami they meet homicide detective Maya (Olivia Munn) and become suspicious of Antonio Pope (Benjamin Bratt), the drug kingpin doing that generous-donator-to-the-police-benevolent-fund thing, so later on the captain can tell the buddies to stop harassing him because he’s a pillar of the community. You know the drill: so far, so Dragnet.
None of this matters much. In many ways you want a police comedy to have a clichéd buddy-cop plot, because it’s supposed to be riffing on the format, and the point is to appropriate its standard signifiers and build jokes around them. The problem is this, though: Ice Cube wears sunglasses pretty much all the time. Even indoors, and at night. Probably for a good 70% of the film.
Now, I don’t begrudge a man wearing sunglasses to excess, least of all Ice Cube. He’d be more than welcome to come round for Sunday lunch, and if he insisted on keeping his eyes shaded throughout, he’d be no less so. But in Ride Along 2 they act as a barrier between him and Hart, stifling the back-and-forth which made the first outing such a success.
Two years ago Hart would mug frantically, making a tit of himself, and all it took was a frown by Cube, and a raise of that splendidly crooked eyebrow, to let him know he was on thin ice. Their whole relationship was in the playing out of that exchange. This connection between the two effectively severed, the jokes don’t land, and the room stays awkwardly silent.
See for example when they’re driving, and Hart is rattling on about giving themselves the nickname “the brothers-in-law” to make them more badass. “You say that again, I’m-a shoot you in the face,” Cube tells him. It’s the sort of line that isn’t funny on its own because it isn’t a joke: it needs context, and for the short length of his fuse to be made plain. Shuttered behind two Ray-ban lenses, it’s just a man threatening to shoot his sister’s fiancé in the face, and it’s about as funny.
This is an unfathomable decision, and I’d be fascinated to know whether it was Cube or director Tim Story who made it. Though he did a bang-up job two years ago I suspect Story, because this sequel is littered with odd choices and missed opportunities. There’s a classic sight gag set-up for Hart – a brilliant physical comedian – to flail about like a maniac as he’s being attacked by an alligator on the other side of a set of glass doors while Cube talks calmly and obliviously to a waitress inside. The way this works, has always worked, is that you get laughs by editing it in such a way that it juxtaposes the silence in the room with the panic outside, but there’s needless incidental music over the top of it and the cuts miss all the right beats. It’s ruined.
Munn is typically good but the point of her character is to be a badass; the female equivalent of Cube, so we can accept the idea of their becoming romantically involved, but the script or direction never quite commits her to this. Ken Jeong’s in there as a hacker who helps them out, but no one really decides what his character does: he variously is a drunk, says inappropriate things and is a liability, but none consistently enough that you grasp what he’s there for. Ben’s fiance Angela (Tika Sumpter) – again permitted only to stay at home and call occasionally to ask when he’s coming back – spends the entire film setting up a Hangover-style make-it-back-for-the-wedding finale that never pays off.
There are laughs here, but nowhere near enough, and it’s a shame. You can’t expect too much of a comedy franchise built on a ropey old template, but the first film raised my hopes too high. I’d have been perfectly happy with a straight-up retread as long as it maintained the two central characters’ dynamic. But acting, as Laurence Olivier almost certainly once said, is all in the eyes, and all Ice Cube had to do was show us his.
You tell him; I’ll totally back you up.