Here’s how to tell if you’re watching a buddy-cop movie. Has a cop on foot flagged down a civilian to borrow her car? (“Police business!”) Is there a bluesy soundtrack? What about a bureaucrat absolutely losing his mind about the off-the-book antics of a renegade officer? If the answer is always yes, then you could be watching one of four “Lethal Weapon” movies or three “Rush Hour” installments or maybe even “Turner & Hooch.”
But if there’s a ripped CIA officer who is haunted by his high school days and prone to discussing unicorns and John Hughes films (“I’ll never be like Molly Ringwald!”), you’re probably enjoying the new, genre-expanding “Central Intelligence.”
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (“We’re the Millers”) and opening Friday, the buddies are Bob, a former nerd turned buff CIA officer (played by Dwayne Johnson) and Calvin (Kevin Hart), the unlikely civilian Bob worships thanks to an act of kindness back in the ’90s.
“He’s somewhere between Jason Bourne and Tom Hanks in ‘Big,’” Johnson said via phone of Bob’s off-kilter personality. High school bullying has left him frozen in time even as six hours of reps every day for two decades have made him a killing machine. “Though he has transformed himself physically, inside he’s the same guy,” Thurber added. “People from high school still have that same power over you.”
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When Bob contacts Calvin, now a frustrated accountant, it’s on Facebook on the eve of their 20-year reunion. Call it the buddy-cop genre’s “Big Chill.”
Is the world ready for an oversharing duo with their souls on their ripped sleeves? “If you don’t have heart, then you don’t care about the characters,” said Thurber, who added that he first saw sweetness enter the genre with the 2012 hit “21 Jump Street.” “You have just a disposable joke machine, and that can never be someone’s favorite film.”
Here are other highlights (and lowlights) from four decades of buddy action films.
‘48 Hrs.’ (1982)
Directed by Walter Hill
The Buddies: The grizzled San Francisco cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) bails Eddie Murphy’s flashy con man Reggie Hammond out of prison for two days to help him catch the cop-killing members of his old gang.
Initial Love Level: Low. “We ain’t partners,” Cates tells Hammond. “We ain’t brothers, and we ain’t friends.”
Signature Chase Scene: City bus versus Cadillac.
Grudging Respect Level: High (but only after beating each other to a pulp). “He’s got more guts than any partner that I ever had,” Cates grunts.
‘Lethal Weapon’ (1987)
The Buddies: A suicidal, chain-smoking widower cop (Mel Gibson’s Riggs) is teamed with a middle-aged family man (Danny Glover’s Murtaugh) who is “getting too old for this.” There’s a heroin ring to be foiled and hostages to be saved.
Initial Love Level: Tentative. “You ever meet anybody you didn’t kill?” Murtaugh wonders.
Signature Scene: Riggs handcuffs himself to a suicide jumper and leaps off the edge of a building. (“You wanted him down, he’s down.”)
Grudging Respect Level: Enormous. Riggs becomes a de facto part of the Murtaugh clan. Hence, three sequels.
‘Midnight Run’ (1988)
The Buddies: The chain-smoking ex-cop turned bail bondsman Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) has to elude the mob, the FBI and rival bounty hunters to get Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a rogue accountant known as the Duke, to Los Angeles before his bond expires.
Initial Love Level: Low. “You know why you have an ulcer? Because you’ve got two forms of expressions, silence and rage,” the Duke tells Walsh.
Grizzled Captain: The FBI agent played by Yaphet Kotto. (“This thing is gonna give me a heart attack before it’s all over.”)
Signature Chase Scene: Heavily armed helicopter versus sedan on the interstate (helicopter loses).
Grudging Respect Level: Sky high. “See you in the next life,” the Duke tells Jack as they arrive in Los Angeles.
‘Rush Hour’ (1998)
Directed by Brett Ratner
The Buddies: After a diplomat’s daughter has been kidnapped and taken from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, the showboating LAPD officer Carter (Chris Tucker) is paired with the clueless but courageous Hong Kong cop Lee (Jackie Chan).
Initial Love Level: Low. Carter, determined to solve the case himself, mocks Lee’s haplessness. “He’s only going to get in my way.”
Grizzled Captain: Played by the never-not-grizzled Philip Baker Hall.
Grudging Level of Respect: Higher after a bonding moment in which Carter teaches Lee how to really groove to Edwin Starr’s funky “War.”
‘21 Jump Street’ (2012)
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
The Buddies: Two baby-faced rookies (the brawny Channing Tatum and the brainy Jonah Hill as Jenko and Schmidt) take part in a special narcotics operation and infiltrate a high school rife with drug abuse.
Initial Love Level: Super high. (“Can we be friends?” Jenko asks Schmidt, impressed by his intellect, although once back at school Jenko becomes a nerd and Schmidt rolls with the cool kids.)
Grizzled Captain: Played by Ice Cube, who makes it clear that while he knows “angry black captain” may be a stereotype, he happens to be black “and sometimes I get angry, so what?”
‘The Heat’ (2013)
Directed by Paul Feig
The Buddies: The hard-living Boston cop Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) clashes with Ashburn, a Type A special agent for the FBI (Sandra Bullock) before agreeing to team up and foil a drug kingpin.
Initial Love Level: Low. “You just gotta vent that furnace,” Mullins says, aghast at Ashburn’s Spanx.
Grudging Respect Level: High. “You are smart, and you are intuitive, and you are the best cop I ever worked with,” Ashburn tells Mullins. They even bond by getting hammered and dancing to “Groove Is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite.