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Ebiri on Ride Along: A Buddy Comedy Destined for the Rite-Aid Discount Bin

Still of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart in Ride Along (2014).

In Blake Snyder’s popular screenwriting how-to book Save the Cat!, written way back in 2005, he repeatedly cites the then-recently-sold spec script Ride Along as a movie with a near-perfect concept. Though he admits to never having read the actual script, Snyder notes the predictable, promising beauty of the film’s logline — a scaredy-cat teacher has to spend a day riding alongside his girlfriend’s overprotective and aggressive cop brother. Apparently, it was so good that it’s taken nearly a decade of rewrites and re-tinkerings to finally get Ride Along to the screen; the finished film has four credited screenwriters, and presumably many more uncredited ones And after all that, what have we got? An Ice Cube and Kevin Hart comedy that will probably be in a Rite-Aid discount bin in about six months. Ze sausage, it iz delicious, no?

There have been a few changes to that allegedly perfect concept along the way. The risk-averse teacher is now Ben Barber (Hart), a school security guard who wants to join the police force. He’s still in love with James Payton’s (Cube) sister (the never-not-stunning Tika Sumpter), and he still wants to marry her. And loose-cannon cop James still thinks Ben is a wimp and a loser, and wants to teach him a lesson — and so, he drags him along one day as they answer various bizarre police dispatch calls. But, perhaps to accommodate Hart’s blustery, motormouth skills, Ben has now been refashioned from your typical milquetoast into someone a bit harder to pin down — the kind of guy who will talk a good game and throw himself into a dangerous situation, only to cower away once things get physical and his teeny-tiny body is in danger of actual harm. It makes for a messy relationship, as the lines between the foolhardy cop and the foolhardy civilian are now a bit less clear. But it also makes the film a bit less predictable. You never quite know what Ben will do, and you never quite know how James will get him out of it.

Though it starts off more like a comedic variation on Training Day, Ride Along also bears more than a passing resemblance to last summer’s odd couple cop comedy The Heat, in which by-the-book Fed Sandra Bullock and unhinged Boston cop Melissa McCarthy bickered and took down bad guys while becoming best friends. Like The Heat, Ride Along has as much action as it does humor, though a time traveler from 1996 might have his mind blown to learn that the Sandra Bullock movie is far more profane and violent than its Ice Cube counterpart. In both films, though, one character serves as the comic engine: Here, Hart has the energy to take his rat-tat-tat rants into odd, fun directions, but he doesn’t quite have the hypnotically surreal, whipsawing quality that McCarthy brought to her performance. As for Ice Cube, he does irritated well, and he gets to do a lot of that here. About 90 percent of his performance appears to be reaction shots.

It all mostly works, but you can’t help but wonder at times if it could have been a lot funnier if it had just a bit more edge. Aside from some goofily intimate sex talk between Hart and Sumpter, Ride Along never seems to want to push any envelopes, or to take any real chances. And given the familiarity of the whole thing, you keep wishing for something to raise your pulse. Hart brings some of that, but it’s never quite enough. The premise of that long-ago spec script was a typical fish-out-of-water/buddy-cop tale. But we’ve had so many of those over the years that it’s hard not to watch Ride Along and be reminded of many more entertaining and surprising films that you could be watching in its place.

Photo: Universal Pictures