Kevin Hart seems to have found a second career playing the goofy, vertically challenged geek opposite tough guys in formulaic buddy action comedies (BACs).

Mere months after he dropped his second BAC with Ice Cube, the unbearably lame, bombs-babes-and-bums-filled Ride Along 2, Hart has jumped into the sack with Dwayne Johnson for Central Intelligence. It's pretty much the same BAC, except here the action star is a spy, not a cop - and the tough guy is a geek at heart.

There is one other difference: Central Intelligence is actually funny.

For one thing, Central Intelligence is shot from a script that contains actual dialogue rather than stage directions for endless gun fights and sex scenes. And its humor isn't mass-produced and store-bought but seriously idiosyncratic - boy, is it weird!

That's down to the fearless, uninhibited character work by Johnson as rogue CIA officer Bob Stone, who has to be one of the oddest birds this side of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

We first meet Bob in 1996 when he's a shy, awkward, friendless Baltimore high school senior. Decked out in a nude fat suit that makes him look to be at least 350 pounds, Johnson shoves his derriere into the camera in the film's opening shots as he struts in his school's locker-room shower.

When his classmates play a horrific prank on Bob in front of the entire student body, he's rescued by the school's popular big-man-on-campus, Calvin "Golden Jet" Joyner (Hart) - class president, smokin' hot baseball and basketball star, prom king, and the dude voted most likely to succeed. (His inner geek surfaces later.)

Bob, who dropped out of school that very day, suddenly pops up in Calvin's life during the school's 20th reunion weekend. The blubber's gone and Bob looks like . . . well, he looks like the Rock.

(It didn't take much to lose weight, Bob tells an astonished Calvin. "I only had to do one thing: work out six hours a day for 20 years.")

Despite his bulging muscles and ripped abs, he's the same goofball: He wears a pink and powder-blue unicorn T-shirt, he carries a fanny pack wherever he goes, and he waxes poetic about Sixteen Candles - it's his favorite movie because he identifies so intimately with Molly Ringwald's character.

Bob and Calvin make for a nice study in contrasts: Bob is a superspy who is propositioned by beautiful women wherever he goes, while Calvin, who peaked in high school, now lives a boring life as an accountant.

Central Intelligence moves into high gear when a team of heavily armed CIA assassins crashes Calvin and Bob's little reunion. Led by the sadistic Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan in a disappointing, lackluster performance), who claims Bob has been selling secrets to the enemy, the goons chase our heroes up the Eastern Seaboard. There's gunplay, a few close calls, some hot stunts, blah, blah, blah.

We don't watch BACs for the plot but for the banter, the heated back-and-forth, the frisson between the (invariably mismatched) heroes.

To its credit, Central Intelligence doesn't try to outdo other BACs when it comes to banter: Its dialogue isn't faster, more profane, or more hyped than other movies. It's simply better written and a lot weirder.

True, Central Intelligence is predictable, formulaic, and forgettable. It's not going to enrich your life. But if you have to see one BAC this summer, let it be this one.




Central Intelligence

2 1/2 stars (Out of four stars)

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. With Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence, profanity).

Playing at: Area theaters.