It’s an odd feeling to expect commercial breaks while watching a movie in the theater, but Ride Along is so perfectly set up for the 3:00 PM Saturday afternoon time slot on TBS that it took some cursing by Ice Cube to remind me that I was in fact not sitting on my couch. I don’t even have basic cable these days, but I’ve watched enough TBS/TNT/USA/FX to recognize the characteristics of a rebroadcastable action comedy. Aside from at least two recognizable stars (one of whom is ideally adept at slapstick), the movie must feature an incredibly high-concept plot, breezily paced action sequences to bookend the commercial breaks, plentiful urban skyline panoramas, a dark alley or warehouse scene, villains with bad accents, some potty humor, and at least one really awesome car. Ride Along delivers all of these except for the potty humor, which it more than makes up for with some sex jokes. Expect it on by TBS by the end of the year—possibly sooner if buoyed by solid Redbox rentals and in-flight entertainment purchases.
Director: Tim Story
Producers: Ronald G. Muhammed, Nicolas Stern, Matt Alvarez, Larry Brezner, Ice Cube, William Packer, Dianne Ashford
Writers: Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Cinematographer: Larry Blanford
Editor: Craig Alpert
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Cast: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Bryan Callen, Laurence Fishburne, Dragos Bucur, Gary Owen, Jacob Latimore, Jay Pharoah
US Theatrical Release: January 17, 2014
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
This is the type of movie that doesn’t get studio funding unless a producer has the promise of a winning horse in their corral. In this case, it’s the combination of Ice Cube with director Tim Story, whose Barbershop (2002) garnered legitimate critical acclaim on its way to a surprising $75 million box office take. Story has also previously worked with Kevin Hart, and though Think Like a Man (2012) received mixed reviews, its $100 million gross on a $12 million budget was not only enough to warrant a sequel (due out this June), but likely enough to greenlight Ride Along as a bonus. It’s all speculation on my part, but when faced with the sheer mediocrity of movies like Ride Along, it’s always necessary to step back and remember the business model at work in Hollywood. (More on that later).
Box office strategizing is simple math, but actually producing entertaining content is a much more challenging task, and when the plot of a film is too predictable, the dialogue and acting bear an awful lot of extra weight. Even the most promising cast will struggle to carry the load, and Ride Along is no exception, despite a truly winning screen duo in Kevin Hart and Ice Cube. Their polar opposite personalities, facial expressions, manners of speaking, and body language make for a nice complementary pairing—one ripe for humor in their natural banter, or in the hands of a creative screenwriter. Unfortunately we’re not hanging out with them at a backyard barbecue or seeing them perform live as a comedy act. We’re watching them slog through a contrived (and rewritten) script that rarely makes full use of the tools it has in its actors. As such, watching Ride Along becomes a frustrating exercise in unfulfilled potential, like driving the film’s frequently featured Dodge Charger R/T at 30 miles per hour with the windows up and the stereo turned off.
At least the two stars are correctly cast: Hart as Ben Barber, an obnoxiously cheerful security guard and “platinum level” player on his favorite first-person shooter video game; Ice Cube as James Payton, a surly, stubbornly independent Atlanta cop whose energy, at least within the limited scope of the movie, is limited to three things (four, if you count scowling.) The first is tracking down Omar, the type of crimelord whose exploits in films like this are never really explained but are always exotic in nature—in this case, fake passports and military-grade Serbian weaponry (in Atlanta?). James’ second and third priorities, of equal importance, are preventing Ben from fulfilling his dream of entering the police academy and from marrying his fiancée, Angela, James’ sister. To prove Ben’s worth as both a potential cop and potential brother-in-law, James invites him on a one-day ride along. If Ben makes it through the day and the challenges that arise, he’ll receive James’ blessing on the marriage.
The day of the ride along is where the movie comes to life, with frequent and mostly amusing references to Training Day, and a handful of high production-value sequences (including a trusty warehouse scene.) Hart enjoys the lion’s share of acting work, developing Ben as essentially a 12 year-old boy in, well, a 12 year-old’s body. (Hart stands 5’4”, and the steady stream of jokes about his height don’t tire.). If the inspiration for his character was not an adolescent with ADHD, it might have been based on the work of John Leguizamo, who stars in a minor role here and presumably told Hart to draw inspiration from his work in 1997’s The Pest. Laurence Fishburne also makes a welcome appearance and nicely chews up the screen time he’s given, while Ice Cube appears more than comfortable simply sitting back and reacting to Hart’s antics with fits of exasperation. By the end of Ride Along you accept that it’s just another unevenly funny buddy cop comedy, or a parody of one, that lacks even one minute of the verve and wit of a gem like Hot Fuzz.
And here is where we come back to the business of Hollywood. Among the dozens of American buddy cop films dutifully catalogued in Wikipedia, and despite concepts that include “child witness teamed with a veteran” (Cop and a Half), “fictional cop paired with real world boy” (Last Action Hero), and “recently deceased cop teams up with veteran supernatural cop” (R.I.P.D.), I can’t find or remember one that centers on a “prospective brother-in-law paired with veteran cop.” Somehow, within a genre that has spanned decades and transcended boundaries of race (Bad Boys), gender (The Heat, albeit only in 2013), species (Turner & Hooch), and geologic period (Theodore Rex, anyone?), the writers of Ride Along have admirably found what has to be the last remaining buddy cop plot. Hats off, fellas.
If this achievement was not the impetus for making this film, I am at a loss for any other justifiable reason besides a star vehicle for Kevin Hart. Otherwise Ride Along is easily digestible fluff made only to turn a profit, like the popcorn gobbled by audiences while they watch it. Despite enjoying a few genuine laughs courtesy of Hart, in my most cynical moments I consider movies like Ride Along to be excellent examples of how corrupt Hollywood’s creative culture is in 2014. Here is an unapologetically formulaic movie that pushes no boundaries whatsoever and then has the audacity to overtly suggest a sequel in its final minute. It’s old news by now that the major Hollywood studios are beholden to franchises and trilogies of mediocre movies like Ride Along, which don’t need to be made once, let alone three times. We in the audience are being taken along for a ride, that’s for sure, but there’s no need to buckle your seatbelts. This endless ride is proving to be slow, smooth, and predictable, with no detour in sight.