A sure-bet time-waster with a clutch of big laughs? A 100-minute brief on Hollywood's lack of imagination? Grist for future essays about how quickly the idea of Ice "Fuck tha Police" Cube playing a gun-happy hero cop became routine? Whatever you make of Ride Along 2 beforehand is certain to be what you make of it as you cruise with it. Tim Story's sequel — to a buddy-cop comedy that itself was only "original" in the legal sense — is made up entirely of scenes you've seen before, starring actors you're familiar with doing the kinds of things that they usually do. Like your smartphone, it's a testament to the theory of interchangeable parts, a perfectly engineered product that, if you're charitable, you might also think of in terms of art. There's certainly culture-pretzeled weirdness to behold here, some of it deliberate: the tense early scene where Cube confronts Atlanta's top drug dealer, a scary white man, until pipsqueak Kevin Hart bounces up in a low-rider Impala, bumping Iggy Azalea's "Fancy"? When I fire my pistol, you can start your thinkpieces.
But every time I started to believe that there's some parodic impulse behind the filmmakers' re-casting of clichés, Cube's character would punch a suspect in custody or commit some other violation of civil liberties that the film invites us to cheer. In the tradition of Police Academy sequels, a big case compels the bickering cops of Ride Along to journey to Miami. You may wonder: Is it a gag that the establishing shots of cityscapes are spliced together with establishing shots of asses, Fast & Furious style? In the future, will filmmakers dispense with the cityscapes altogether and just set the scene with region-specific booty?
As the film barrels along, Story's cheery leering proves itself a directorial hallmark. It's a staple of cop movies that Olivia Munn, as a tough-cookie Miami homicide detective, must showcase spectacular cleavage during the sequence in which the heroes infiltrate a gala at a billionaire's home. But Story and company go above and beyond, contriving to have her show up at a crime scene fresh from pilates — and go about her police work in her sports bra.
But, like the crowd I saw this with, I laughed quite a bit. (They applauded, even.) For once, the worst gag — a weakly staged encounter between Hart and a CGI alligator — is the one spoiled in the trailers. Again, Hart plays a rookie wannabe eager to team up with Cube's movie-cop badass, and, again, Cube's character has to deal with the fact that Hart's has won the love of his sister. The drama, this time, isn't just whether they'll bring down the villain you know they'll bring down. It's whether Cube will say something nice in a toast at the climactic wedding.
In the years since Barbershop (2002), Story has backed away from personal style in favor of sturdy scene-by-scene competence. As in the first Ride Along, he's not pushy as he sets up the gags, and even the ones where you can see the joke coming never go exactly the way you might expect. When Hart, here, stands on top of a chair, and then on top of a table, you know he's going to get his noggin knocked by the ceiling fan, but Story trusts his actor to dictate the timing. Later, a backyard foot chase keeps topping itself, with Hart and Ken Jeong crashing through barbecues, scrambling over fences and vaulting off trampolines — as the mayhem escalates, the hilarity does, too, which is rare in noisy action setpieces. Throughout, Story never loses sight of the eccentric specificities of these performers, even in the not-bad car chase, which Hart's character, the driver, gets through by envisioning it all as Grand Theft Auto. That's kind of what the pre-viz teams do with blockbuster action scenes already, so let's credit Ride Along 2 with one more satiric point. (Another suggestion of more thoughtful intentions: KRS-One's furious "Sound of da Police" booms over the end credits.)
Story isn't always generous with his performers. Munn's detective leads the villain (a lean and wicked Benjamin Bratt) through seductive paces on the dance floor, but we never really get to see these stars glide together. Instead, the film keeps cutting to Hart yelling at that gator. Cube, meanwhile, is fine as the tough guy who melts, just a little, at his admirer's pluck.
The Ride Along series casts Hart as a Melissa McCarthy character, the person everyone overlooks but who could achieve greatness. Hart has played that before, but unlike McCarthy he doesn't have a sympathetic Paul Feig to build a Spy around him — a careful, caring movie that convinces us to believe in its lead. Instead, Ride Along is another revue-like setting for its star to demonstrate his chops.
Kevin Hart movies belong to Kevin Hart the way Sonny Rollins albums belong to Sonny, no matter who's in the band. Hart doesn't get as much solo time here as he did in The Wedding Ringer — a shaky film that still cannily showcased both his anarchic yapping and his leading-man suavity — and on occasion the direction he seems to have been given is "Be loud and annoying for a couple minutes." But, as in his stand-up, Hart dazzles when he has material worth his considerable motormouth talents. His hilarious rants here about the meanings of ringtones, or how his and Cube's characters should call themselves "The Brothers-in-Law," or how much surviving a police shootout would hurt? They'll forever be highlights of his already swollen highlight reel.