I’ve been blissfully ignorant of the steady rise to stardom of Kevin Hart (although I have seen Meet Dave, if that counts), but on the evidence of Ride Along his hyperactive banter, with a winning strain of self-deprecation, needs to find significantly better material if he’s to endure. Although in the US, with the box office tally of this movie, you’d be sure he had already arrived. As ever, comedy is Hollywood’s thorniest international export, and it made negligible outroads internationally (a meagre 12% of the total gross). Discussing takings at the start of a review is a sure sign of shortcomings and Ride Along’s biggest is that it’s bereft of inspiration, essentially refitting The Hard Way in a tepid and perfunctory manner.
The pairing of Michael J. Fox and James Woods in that movie was inspired, a choice that naturally elevated the material; you could see the contempt oozing from Woods’ every pore, and Fox (even more diminutive than Hart) has always been game to send himself up. Hart and Ice Cube, as high school security guard Ben Barber who dreams of joining the force and hardened police detective James Payton respectively, have a reasonably edgy chemistry. Payton doesn’t want to know about the mosquito buzzing in his ear, and is set on doing everything he can to dissuade him from becoming a police officer, particularly since Ben is dating his sister (Tika Sumpter). Cube is a an okay straight man (there’s no point testing his very limited range), and works well bouncing abuse off Hart, but he flounders in pretty much any “proper” acting scene. Likewise Hart, who bears a surprising resemblance to Fred Ward from some angles, goes off on some half decent riffs, but when a scene calls for serious interaction it becomes clear he’s playing as if he’s the only man in the room, a common failing of the stand-up writ large.
The plot is collection of formulaic set pieces, familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of mismatched buddies (not even cops) movies; one (uptight, serious) starts out hating the other (a fantasist) but gradually, through the course of their time together, learns he has good qualities and thaws accordingly. Meanwhile, the dreamer proves himself (even possibly that he is a real man after all); The Hard Way commendably eschewed this. Woods still hated Fox at the end. Here, Payton wants to bring down some Serbian arms dealers and their boss and, of course, Barber ends up providing him with unlikely help.
The picture is at its negligible finest during Hart’s showboating moments; confronting a biker gang over a disabled parking space, visiting a gun range, dealing with a crazy guy at the supermarket. And the old standards of mistaken circumstances and impersonation that serve him best. Accompanying Payton to a bar for what he assumes is another 126 (annoying calls used to put rookies through their paces), Barber believes a genuinely dangerous scenario to be make-believe. Likewise, his impersonation of Omar (“I thought Omar was 6’ 4”?”). It’s a scenario that’s been seen played out many times before, and done much better, but its mildly diverting.
Cube had etched himself out a regular spot in Januarys in the US, amassing a serious of successes that far exceeded their modest budgets, but this had tapered off of late; Ride Along is a shot in the arm for him. The best I can say is he does good reaction shots, angry or bewildered, mostly to Hart’s antics, and even has a fourth wall moment when Ben, behaving as if a warehouse shootout is a video game, goes searching for ammo on the floor and finds it; James looks disbelievingly into camera.
If there’s anything of thematic note to discuss about this movie, it’s the presentation of the fantasy escape world of video games as equal and worthy in to “real life” experiences (you know, the ones where Ice Cube exists as a cop); Ben’s knowledge, derived from Taliban crushing computer games, repeatedly comes in handy, against all odds and probabilities, leading to vital clues and leads. And rousingly, Ben’s game nerd buddies (“Thank you, Assface”) rally to help our heroes in the third act. Is this an attempt to swing the scales back in favour of the raging geeks? It’s a curiously valedictory message to send out, that sitting in front of a screen playing games all day is valuable and equips one for interaction with the great outside more than we would guess.
On the support side, I doubt any of the players are here for the love of the art. John Leguizamo can’t afford to be picky, while Bruce McGill and Laurence Fishburne always bring something to not necessarily very good material. Tim Story directed this; the guy Fox let shit all over The Fantastic Four not once, but twice (but hey, looking at the bottom line, which was Fox’s only criteria, it made sense; the kind of sense that got John Moore aboard Die Hard 5). Story’s got his second unit doing overtime again, which is to say this is barely directed. It’s a collection of shots stapled together. Right from the pace-deflating music that punctures the engaging opening title design its clear this will be a botch job. There’s no reason a comedy vehicle can’t have a good director, although it’s also the case that they rarely tarnish the reputation of bad ones; the Rush Hours made even Ratner look competent. I’m sure Story will ensure Ride Along 2 is every bit as scintillating as the first.