"RIDE ALONG"-- 1 STAR
When a new comedy star splashes onto to the scene, it seems like everything they touch turns to gold. They rise to prominence for a particular style or brand of comedy that becomes their act and the right movies come along that use it to its fullest extent, whether it's as a lead or a supporting presence. Eddie Murphy did it with his Richard Pryor-inspired, non-nonsense stand-up act and turned it into charasmatic riches. Jim Carrey raised the bar for physical comedy to a whole new level of investment and characterization. Both took off from movies that didn't stray far from their strengths.
We are in the middle of watching the same "Midas touch" with the burgeoning takeovers from two more comedians. Melissa McCarthy is your new Jim Carrey, taking her proudly-obese physical comedy and scoring hit-after-hit over the last three years (an Emmy-winning TV show, "Bridesmaids," "Identity Thief," "The Heat," and, soon, this summer's "Tammy."). If McCarthy is the new Carrey, then Kevin Hart is the new Eddie Murphy. He's following that same path of successful stand-up and bringing his ranting ways to the big screen.
"Ride Along" is a perfect vehicle for Kevin Hart's act. By playing his big mouth against his little frame, the jokes are easy to make when you put them next to the bark and growl of Ice Cube. Put them together in a cop movie and the jokes write themselves. In a way, it's almost too easy because "Ride Along" becomes entirely too cliche and predictable to really appreciate. It's in one ear and out the other.
Hart plays Ben Barber, a high school security guard who dreams of becoming a real cop. He pumps up his wannabe toughness by eating up his off-work hours as a "platinum level" gamer in a Call of Duty-like shooter under the code-name of "Black Hammer." Ben has out-kicked his coverage with a perfect girlfriend named Angela (former soap star Tika Sumpter), who finds his good-hearted ambition and "Black Hammer" confidence irresistible. He'd love to marry the girl, but Ben has yet to earn the respect of Angela's brother Jay (Cube), a hard-nosed Atlanta P.D. detective.
When Ben shares the news with Jay that he's been accepted into the police academy, Jay gives Ben the chance to proved himself and his potential by joining him on a ride along day in his life behind the badgte keeping the streets safe. As the day develops, Ben flounders his chances while Jay is continuously preoccupied with his partners (John Leguizamo and Bryan Callen) by a bigger, developing case of a secretive Atlanta crime figure that goes by the name Omar. Go ahead and be spoiled that it's Laurence Fishburne, who's prominent name makes the credits without an appearance until the sound of shoe falling at the right time.
Like I said, "Ride Along" conveniently writes itself. I'm stunned it took four screenwriters (include Jason "Rafi" Mantzoukas from "The League"). Director Tim Story (the "Fantastic Four" series) has worked with both Kevin Hart ("Think Like a Man") and Ice Cube ("Barbershop") before, making this just a matter of Velcro sticking to Velcro. It is all a little too easy. Very little isn't predictable and very little ever surprises. No new ground is broken and nothing is remotely challenging. I thought Fishburne would buoy the material some and call upon his stronger work, but he's here only to spout smiling threats and cash a paycheck.
"Ride Along" is missing the opportunity with a sure-thing cast like Cube, Hart, and Fishburne, to take risks and dare to be a little different. This is one of those cases where the great jokes you see in the trailer are the only ones that stand out in a movie. Go ahead and laugh at Kevin Hart chickening out of violence, breaking up white kids fighting, commenting on cars blowing up, or trash-talking a grade-school kid on the basketball court. That works for two-and-half minutes as a trailer, but not for 99 minutes as a movie. This is little more than "The Heat" with two guys instead of two girls and we've seen that dance before.
Audiences love guys like Hart that have an act. A movie like "Ride Along" was always going to be a slam dunk with audiences. Where Murphy, Carrey, and the other comedy greats ran into trouble is when they went to the well too many repetitive times and their act went stale. I might have to start that clock with Kevin Hart. Make no mistake. The diminutive and fast-talking Hart is on a roll. He's engaging and funny, no doubt, but he's dangerously close to overdoing it, especially with "Grudge Match" flopping this past Christmas, this month's "About Last Night" getting so-so reviews, and "Think Like a Man Too" (also with Story) stepping up to the big-boy table of blockbusters this summer. People expect his signature act, but it only lasts so long.
The good comedians can reinvent themselves and change with the times. The good ones take a few risks, even if it means some bumps in the road. The moments that Murphy and Carrey strayed or branched out, they ran into failure and resistance. The hard part is Murphy hasn't broke out of that rut, and Carrey is a shell of his former self because they beat their acts into the ground. Can the same happen to Kevin Hart and Melissa McCarthy? Time will tell how long this hot streak can continue for them. Enjoy it while you can.
LESSON #1: <INSERT ALL POSSIBLE COP CLICHES>-- There are too many repetitive cliches to list from "Ride Along." There's the one about the cop that always has a hunch for the bigger picture that no one believes, and the one about always ruffling the C.O.'s feathers. There's one about double crosses and inside jobs where nothing would normally be possible, and about the one decent cop that just happens to bend and break the rules with no repercussions. You've seen them all before.
LESSON #2: <INSERT ALL POSSIBLE FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER VIDEO GAME CLICHES>-- This road doesn't end, even if it's a newer realm of cliches. We get the typical idea that video game code-names and usernames are likely overreaches that compensate for a general lack of toughness and that the games are played for hours by introverted and unskilled people in their basements and living rooms, much to the chagrin of their loved ones. I lost count how many times we get a "this ain't no video game" from Ice Cube.
LESSON #3: WINNING THE TRUST AND BLESSING OF YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER'S FAMILY-- Beyond the cliches, the real attempted lesson is a take on brothers that act as secondary fathers to their sisters. Angela and James lost their father at a young age, meaning that big brother James is the patriarch now. Ben, like any other suitor to a typical father, has to prove himself worthy to protect, support, and earn her hand in marriage.
LESSON #4: IT'S NOT THE SIZE OF THE DOG IN THE FIGHT. IT'S THE SIZE OF THE FIGHT IN THE DOG-- Mark Twain comes in for the mic drop. It will follow him his entire career, but we get to circle back to another set of cliches targeting the 5'2" Kevin Hart. The short jokes and adjectives go on all day. They are the low-hanging fruit that will also be easy targets and simple laughs. We should expect them to be here. They are reliable jokes that will always work, but, naturally, Kevin and his characters get to show more than what their heights measure.