"All in all I gotta say, today was a good day."
For better or for worse, the surprise 1994 hit Friday turned Ice Cube from a hip hop outlaw into a mainstream comedic straight man, thanks in large part to his undeniable chemistry with co-star Chris Tucker. Though he's floundered through some less than stellar vehicles since then, including two Friday sequels that produced increasingly diminishing returns, he has more or less transitioned from a hard as nails rapper into a reliable staple of comedic films where he has shown some excellent instincts, particularly in more ensemble driven films like Barbershop and 21 Jump Street. The only thing missing from his films was a co-star like Tucker, with whom he truly showed what a gifted straight man he could be, and the best thing that can be said about his new two-hander Ride Along is that it has finally given him a worthy successor to Tucker in the form of comedian Kevin Hart.
Ben Barber (Hart) seems to have a lot going for him. He's got a beautiful girlfriend (Tika Sumpter) that loves him a lot, he's an ace gamer, and he's just been accepted the the police academy, which will help him escape his current career as a security guard at a high school. The only problem is his girlfriend's prickly police officer brother James (Ice Cube) who is overly protective of his only sister, and cannot stand Ben. When Ben informs James of his acceptance to the police academy in hopes that it will earn him some respect with his would-be brother-in-law, James offers to take Ben on a ride along for a day, to show him what the day to day grind of being an Atlanta police officer is like.
James has been consumed with taking down a major crime lord and arms dealer in Atlanta named Omar (Laurence Fishburne, whose appearance late in the film is treated like a surprise even though he's given prominent billing in the opening credits). James' only problem is that he's too much of a renegade, putting others in harm's way to bring Omar down, including two other cops he works with (John Leguizamo & Bryan Callen). He hopes to use Ben as a distraction to get some investigative work done without the looming eye of his boss (Bruce McGill) on him, but Ben proves to be too much of a loose cannon, which could spell danger for the investigation, as well as their lives.
Hart & Cube have terrific chemistry in the film, and demonstrate how a well tuned comedic rapport can elevate even the most mediocre material. Hart has a fearlessness as an actor that is refreshing, and he is not afraid to make himself look foolish because he fundamentally understands how much funnier a given situation is if he throws himself into it wholly. He is, without a doubt, 90% of the reason why the film works at all, and he plays incredibly well off of whomever he's sharing the screen with, whether it's Cube or, in one of the film's funniest scenes, a ten year old kid. Any doubts I may have had about his ability to carry a film were almost instantly erased thanks to his refreshing audacity as an actor.
Having said all that, it's a real shame that he and his co-star have been relegated to performing in a film that has the most pat, lackluster, tread worn plot imaginable. The script manages some funny one-liners and exchanges, but every beat can be seen coming a mile away, and the film is just frankly not clever enough to subvert your expectations, and stupidly falls victim to them. We know that certain characters will prove to be morally dubious because the film telegraphs their motives forty minutes ahead of time. We know that Ben's video game skills will come in handy because the film devotes several minutes to setting up his online dominance of war games. We know that Ben will similarly earn James' respect because that's just sort of what happens in these films. Nothing is surprising or refreshing about any of this, and anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the tropes of the mis-matched buddy cop movie will know every twist and turn long before it happens.
And that's a real shame because it severely limits the film's potential, though the heartily packed screening I attended indicates that the film will have no problem attracting viewers. Ice Cube seems reinvigorated by his co-star's antics, and rises to his level by sublimely undercutting him throughout the entire film. Their interactions serve as a solid core to an otherwise flabby script, and I would happily watch another film with them in it as I think they could do a lot more with better material. The rest of the cast is fine, but no one necessarily stands out. It's nice to see Fishburne on screen again, and he still manages to pack a lot of menace into the kind of character he's played countless times before.
Director Tim Story has a knack for staging action well, and establishes a light hearted tone that compliments his leads well, but he does fall victim to too many cliches, particularly when it comes to the way he stages the reveals of certain characters' true intentions. It's certainly not his worst work behind the camera, but he's not quite savvy enough to keep the film from succumbing to some mind numbing cliches. Not to beat up on the script more than I already have, but the film's climax drags on for an eternity, and then quickly wraps things up in a matter of about two minutes, which could be the fault of the editing and directing, but the film feels much longer than its 100 minute running time suggests.
For a January release, Ride Along is about as good as you can hope for. It's shortcomings reveal why it was relegated to the graveyard of release dates, but it's certainly got enough going for it that it's not a total wash. It's mainly a victim of squandered potential, but that certainly won't be enough to deter audiences hungry for an action comedy. Hart and Cube both do great work and given a better script to go on, this could have been another Friday, but as it stands, it's merely a forgettable time waster that will be all but forgotten by the time it hits home video in two months.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]