Say this for “Ride Along,” this Friday’s big action buddy comedy: the two leads are black and its villains are a mixture of black, white and Hispanic. At no point during the film does it ever feel like tokenism or pandering, just an attempt, finally, at recreating an honest, plausible cultural makeup. The story takes place in a relatively generic Atlanta, but the streets have a bit of an edge to them: when one character insults another by guessing they’re from Decatur, there’s no attempt to explain the putdown to the non-locals in the audience, only attitude.
It’s unfortunate that the rest of Tim Story’s film feels so by-the-book. The picture opens with a bungled bust followed by a gratuitous chase scene, and when it ends with hero cop James (Ice Cube) being chastised by a gruff boss (Bruce McGill), the film assumes that you’re not familiar with generations openly mocking the same idea. Didn’t Cube himself lampoon the idea of a hot-headed police chief in “21 Jump Street”? The non-warning warning that James receives for his actions simply promises that there will be escalating aggravations between the two, as if James was some sort of rookie and not one of those officers who breaks rules and ambiguously “gets the job done.”
Spastic Kevin Hart, in crowd-pleasing PG-13 mode, plays Ben, the overeager beau to James’ sister Angela (Tika Sumpter—thankless). The film almost surgically arranges its pieces early on, establishing James as a hardass before introducing Ben like a buffoonish child. Ben labors during the day as a school security guard, but he lives with his girlfriend in a massive home perfect for an elaborate videogame system, cackling as he commands a battalion during an interactive war game, oblivious to his gorgeous girlfriend’s attentions. He’s registered for the police exam though, and it’s his chance to finally take Angela’s hand while proving to James that he is not the early-Robin Williams-level pinball he seems to be.
What follows is a ride along, one that Ben hopes will boost his diminutive stature in James’ eyes, even though James has a “Training Day”-level of torment planned. While James gets some police work done, he traps Ben in a series of increasingly implausible sitcom hijinks episodes, cases where he’s berated by children, chased and assaulted by naked men, and forced to defend himself against a biker gang that’s been doctored for maximum ratings palatability: the film keeps feeling like an R-rated picture compromised into the lower rating, particularly considering the racial tension with the gang that feels like only a few snippets of dialogue were removed. Later on, a character utters a well-placed, “Forget you!” except that his lips move less.
Hart is essaying a familiar part, that of the over-aggressive manchild, and steals a few laughs from unflattering material. He may be the master of onscreen irrational exuberance: when his chest pumps out and his voice quickens, he seems a good three feet taller than when he shrinks and shrieks in fear, something that happens a bit too often to remain fresh. Cube, an experienced onscreen performer nonetheless, can’t create a believable characterization out of a tired trope, the lone wolf cop with a perma-scowl. This is not a knock against his weight, particularly since Cube has been compact and muscled since his delightfully dopey action vehicle “XxX: State of the Union,” but here Cube reaches for a gun the way you’d reach for a donut. James is supposed to come off as the Last Hard Man, but Cube can’t help but sometimes go soft and slack, playing to the audience, often in an attempt to match Hart’s chaotic energy.
The film livens towards the home stretch, as Ben is relied on to out-think his opponents, making this the latest in a long line of films where a character actually gains combat acumen by toiling for hours in front of a joystick. Consumerism rewarded. It does, however, allow Hart a very funny, vaguely improv-ish scene where he must provide a distraction to save James from certain doom. The punchline to the moment, however, is the appearance of Laurence Fishburne in a key role. He rips into his dialogue like steak, savoring every word as if he were paid by the syllable. For a moment, we’re in a different movie, one where someone has decided to singlehandedly deconstruct a cliché. It’s a very short moment. [C-]