In Ride Along, Kevin Hart cowers, jumps, fidgets, raises his voice into a high nasal whine, manically repeats words and phrases for comic effect, and blurts out big chunks of dialogue in single breaths. In other words, he behaves like Jerry Lewis, and the movie—an action comedy about a high school security guard who spends a day with his girlfriend’s cop brother—improbably brings to mind the buddy comedies Lewis made with Dean Martin in the 1950s. The rapport between Hart and co-star Ice Cube has all the hallmarks of contemporary mainstream comedy (pop culture references, trash-talk riffs), but the movie’s Hart-centric set pieces—most of which revolve around him impersonating authority figures—hearken back to Lewis. Many Jerry Lewis staples, including bratty children and imposing tough guys, are present and accounted for; at one point, Hart even childishly leaps into Ice Cube’s arms, Lewis-style.
Set mostly over the course of a single day, Ride Along stars Hart as Ben, a wannabe cop who spends most of his free time playing multiplayer shooters on his Xbox. (This, again, recalls Lewis’ comics- and movie-obsessed characters.) After receiving an acceptance letter from the police academy, Ben tells tough-as-nails Atlanta detective James (Cube, oozing “I’m just playing along with this” aloofness) about his plans to marry James’ sister once he graduates. James is an overprotective older-brother type who thinks than Ben isn’t good enough for his sister, and he suggests that Ben prepare for academy training by shadowing him for a day, assuming that his aspiring brother-in-law will prove himself unworthy.
Ben is dorky and unimposing, but he’s still a competent prospective law-enforcement officer, so James sets out to deliberately sabotage him by asking the dispatcher to reroute him all of the most annoying calls. These minor disturbances end up tying into a crime ring James has been investigating for the past three years—a development which recalls another Martin & Lewis-flavored buddy-cop comedy 2010’s The Other Guys. Ride Along even opens with an explosion-laden car chase that brings to mind The Other Guys’ beginning, but it lacks the earlier film’s affection for police work/culture and its populist anger. Rather, Ride Along is just another renegade-cop-knows-best movie, with Ben and James’ back-and-forth hung on a generic gun-smuggling plotline populated with non-ironical stock types.
Is any of it funny? Hart and Cube’s deliveries certainly are, but skilled comedians can make people laugh without being all that funny, especially if there’s a large audience involved. The true measure of a joke isn’t the immediate laugh effect, but whether it bears repeating. American comedies used to be some of the most carefully crafted movies around (two Martin & Lewis vehicles—Artists And Models and Hollywood Or Bust—are among the most formally assured Hollywood films of their era), but changing preferences have pushed them to emphasize delivery over comic style or what’s actually being delivered. There’s nothing funny about Ride Along’s direction, which is handled by Tim Story, the indistinguishable journeyman who helmed Barbershop, Think Like A Man, and two largely forgotten Fantastic Four movies. The best thing that can be said about Story’s style is that it never undermines a joke.
Ride Along is at its best when it embraces the comedy of an earlier era, when performance was just the surface of an inherently funny situation or scene: a trip to a gun range that verges on slapstick, with loose-limbed Ben struggling to hold a front-heavy handgun upright; a confrontation with gun smugglers in a strip club, with Ben prancing around, blissfully unaware of the danger he’s in; a sequence that intercuts James’ interrogation of an informant (Jay Pharaoh) with Ben’s struggling to interrogate the informant’s kid brother. However, as the movie enters its third act, the generic plot kicks in, with a string of non-comic scenes enlivened by one-liners—an unfortunate reminder that, as often as Ride Along seems to be channeling 1954, it’s still a 2014 studio comedy.