Movie: Ride Along
Director: Tim Story
Writers: Greg Coolidge, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Jason Mantzoukas
Release date: January 17, 2014
U.S. box office: $134,938,200
Worldwide box office: $153,997,819
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 90
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 17
Metacritic score: 41
Letterboxd average grade: 3/5
“Ride Along is at its best when Hart wiggles free of the strictures of formula and locks onto an inspired riff, like when he discourses extensively on rainbows while loopy on hospital morphine after getting shot, or when it delves into Hart’s nerdy immersion in gamer culture. To its credit, Ride Along ultimately respects Hart’s unique take on masculinity, acknowledging that a guy whose aggression takes place entirely in the virtual realm of videogames, who is healthily and understandably obsessed with his beautiful girlfriend, and who thinks his way through problems is every bit as much a man as a traditional tough guy like Cube.” —Nathan Rabin
“All the while, Hart is jumping up and down, not listening, causing trouble. You don’t know whether to put him in another movie or a timeout. He and Ice Cube bring nothing out of each other. The movie is one of those Coors Light ads in which Ice Cube gets frosted by an inanimate can of sassy beer. Now the beer is Hart, who as a comedian has been begging for Hollywood’s attention for five years. He has it now, but you’ve got to believe he can do better than this.” —Wesley Morris, Grantland
“Yet, funny thing about movie formulas—they don’t arise because they’re repulsive. They arise because they have an inherent appeal, and so, in its humble way, does Ride Along. At times, watching Hart and Ice Cube step into these roles is like watching some secular version of a Passion play or Nativity cycle, some endlessly repeatable, archetypal thing in which the actors are temporal and interchangeable and the tradition is all that matters.” —Mick LaSalle, SFGate
“Maybe next time the director, Tim Story, will go over the edge into parody. He doesn’t, at the moment, have much talent for shoot-outs and chases, though he’s good at milking these two actors for what they can do. Ice Cube has a stare as deadly as a meat cleaver and speech so precise that it seems etched; he has a good slow burn and a gift for tirade. Hart hops around him like an overanxious terrier, chattering, falling, recovering. Like a lot of young comics, he teases male infantilism and stud swagger, but he does it faster than anyone since Eddie Murphy in his early days. The movie’s success will no doubt yield between two and eight sequels. It would be nice to see the talent put to better use, but I wouldn’t count on it.” —David Denby, The New Yorker
The hype surrounding Ride Along was all around Hart’s performance as Ben Barber, a meek little puppy-man who longs to play with the big dogs. Instead, he keeps getting smacked by the outsized paw of scowling, lazily typecast Ice Cube, who could play this role in his sleep, and sometimes appears to be. Hart might have seemed like an overnight success to a lot of critics and audiences, but he’d been on the periphery of stardom for more than a decade, perfecting his “irritable motormouth with a Napoleon complex” shtick with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where he shared a hilarious scene with Romany Malco; Along Came Polly; a starring role in the résumé-eraser Soul Plane; and the smash-hit performance film Laugh At My Pain, which grossed almost $8 million domestically with little publicity.
But Hart’s star really began to rise when Ride Along director Tim Story cast him in the 2012 Steve Harvey relationship-guide adaptation Think Like A Man, in essentially the same role he gave Cedric The Entertainer in his breakthrough film, Barbershop. In both cases, Cedric and Hart are essentially soloists, wild cards given free rein to heckle from within, stealing their films from their less-gregarious, attention-hungry co-stars. Think Like A Man raised the question of why Story didn’t just lose the dead weight and romantic-comedy machinations, and make a movie mostly about Hart. Ride Along was the lucrative answer, though Hollywood being Hollywood, Hart and Story also repeated their shtick again, to rapidly dwindling rewards, in Think Like A Man Too.
Hart can be funny as a high-school security guard trying to exert his will on people who look at him as an overgrown child, as when he tells two squabbling kids, “You’re white! You’re white! You don’t fight!” Hart and the film play up Ben’s diminutiveness to consistently amusing comic effect, positing him as a squirrely man-child in a world of swaggering, deadly adults.
The more overwhelmed and outnumbered Ben is, the funnier he becomes. So he’s seldom more amusing than when trying to intimidate a biker’s gang using only his words and attitude. Hart is similarly droll trying to impress his would-be partner James Payton (Ice Cube) with his virtual heroics as videogame badass “Black Hammer.” The funniest jokes in Ride Along tend to be the smallest, like the child-like joy Ben derives from being able to say “Copy!” into a police radio, coupled with the radio dispatcher’s inability to understand him. Or his happy delusions when he trips out on morphine in a hospital after being shot. His antics are cleverer than James vomiting exposition on why it’s always been difficult for him to trust people.
Ride Along’s action elements couldn’t be staler, complete with a mystery kingpin named Omar who’s a tantalizing unknown to the cops, though viewers can guess who he is by looking for big names in the credits who don’t appear in the film’s first two acts. The plot is essentially Training Day played for laughs: Wannabe cop Ben gets a crash course in the brutal realities of being a police officer from James, who tries to sabotage Ben’s progress by throwing him into situations designed to break his resolve. But Ben proves he’s made of sterner stuff, and when he isn’t jibber-jabbering away a mile a minute, he can actually be insightful. James’ hazing is meant to shatter Ben’s spirit by showing him only the worst, craziest elements of a typical cop’s day; instead, it brings out the cop in a man who otherwise limits his violence to the videogame realm.
Watching the film, I remembered an audio commentary for Taxi where director Tim Story said he wasn’t particularly interested in big action scenes, and was happy to let the second unit handle them. His perfunctory action direction backs this up. Story seems to see every moment Ben isn’t running his mouth as dead time, which should be hurried through as quickly as possible so he can get back to what he loves: putting the camera on Hart and seeing what flies out of his mouth. Story loves individual performers. He just seems indifferent about his films as a whole.
Cube isn’t the only one playing the material straight: The rest of the film has the look, feel, and sensibility of a dusty old 1980s mismatched-buddy-cop movie, hauled out in hopes that Hart’s fresh mouth and off-kilter sensibility can inject hoary material with rapid-fire contemporary resonance. Cube is funnier spoofing this material in the 21 Jump Street films than he is playing it straight. Here, he delivers one long scowl of a performance that leans way too hard on the goodwill he’s received for a quarter-century as one of America’s most beloved badasses. I can’t blame him for being bored with this kind of material. And the pairing of John Leguizamo and Mad TV’s Bryan Callen in comic roles as Cube’s corrupt fellow cops doesn’t lead to the comedic fireworks the filmmakers intended, either.
The videogame angle that allows super-gamer Ben to get the jump on the bad guys with his special skills feels a lot less fresh the second time around as well. It isn’t an intriguing manifestation of the protagonist’s unique take on badass manhood, so much as a gimmick pandering to an audience that’s significantly more likely to be filled with gamers than survivors of real-life shootouts.
Ride Along benefitted from the low expectations greeting both buddy-cop movies and January releases. When it was released, Hart was already approaching superstar status in the black community as a comedian and an actor. His metrosexual-leaning, girlfriend-worshipping take on black masculinity was much fresher than it is now in an era where it feels like every comedy features Hart talking as if his life depends on it. (Stay tuned for another entry in the “Kevin Hart mismatched buddy” subgenre on Thursday: The Wedding Ringer.)
Ride Along is a flimsy little nothing of a movie seemingly destined to play forever on basic cable, where familiar faces and hokey premises can enjoy endless shelf lives even as they grow rusty and decrepit. But here’s something that might help knock the rust back off, and crowd the shelf a little: Hart, Story, and Cube have re-upped for Ride Along 2. It’s in post-production, and is set for release in January 2016.