In a lull in the numbing action that fills so many of Ride Along’s comic set-pieces, as the film gears up for the first of its three climaxes (this is a picture with two too many climaxes), Kevin Hart’s plucky but pathetic Ben Barber, an aspiring cop, discovers that his girlfriend’s brother has been gleefully playing him for a fool all day, sending him to clean up the annoying messes no cop wants to deal with. It should be an emotional moment for Ben, a real gut punch, and in an uproarious but brilliantly human comedy like last year’s The Heat, these sorts of moments did resonate in exactly that way without taking anything away from gross-out, blood-spurting, profanity-laden moments to come. But here the punchline is just too good (or too bad) for the writers of Ride Along to pass up; the scene ends not with Ben processing his disappointment, but with Ice Cube (for he’s not really gruff though honest cop James Payton but rapper-turned-toothless-actor Ice Cube in this moment) looking directly into the camera and gloating “Today was a good day.”
I actually looked left and right, back and front, to check if that line had landed with as much of a thud with anyone else in all the world as it had with me, and was reassured to get, after a frightening moment, an acknowledging headshake from a nearby seatmate. I was literally removed for a full minute from the world of the movie (not that I minded necessarily, so unconvincing is this film’s notion of Atlanta’s grimy, high-larious underbelly), spat out of the picture like I’d just lost at a level of Super Mario 64.
Look, it takes a great deal of elbow grease and envelope-pushing in other areas for a comedy to get away with a metatextual reference that lazy (and, if one pauses to think about the context of that legendary song and Cube’s overall rap persona, particularly in relationship to the Los Angeles police force, that despairingly baffling). Arrested Development, working overtime to gild itself with so many lilies, Winklers and Minellis, could get away with that line and make it worthy of a belly laugh. Community could probably get that line a passing grade, and pretty much did when it used Michael K. Williams to play and quote Omar while dressed as a biology teacher and not do much more.
Ride Along, considering it is acting merely as a vehicle to get Kevin Hart from one insane situation to another so that he may finally ascend through buddy comedy to the level of the anointed one, Eddie Murphy (speak not of Chris Tucker here) – this vehicular metaphor made literal by title and plotting if this were not apparent enough – does not have even the slightest metatextual inclination, and so it earns this call-back not at all. If Michael Bay had the restraint to feature Mark Wahlberg in a 90s-set comedy and not feature a single explicit Funky Bunch reference, you’d think Ride Along, a middle-of-the-road action comedy that tries and fails at everything The Heat tried and incinerated with the holy fire of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy’s blistering chemistry only a few months ago, would have the decency to recall that Ice Cube has been a cuddly comedian for so long that even if Ride Along were Rated-R (it is not), many of those who could gain admission would know the man for nothing more.
But it is moments like this one (and another where Mr. Cube incredulously looks us in the face and essentially begs us to wonder with him if his career since N.W.A and Boyz N’ the Hood has really led him to wearing a police badge while watching Kevin Hart take down Furious Styles, raking in that cameo paycheck money) that actually make the film’s most laugh-worthy lines those in which Ice Cube tries to convince us that he is not Ice Cube but James Payton, protective brother with deep-seated trust issues born of a troubled childhood and Atlanta’s seemingly only honest cop.
Let this not be mistaken for me saying that Hart, an able and willing comedian, contributes nothing that is laugh-worthy. His strut as he enters the fray imitating never-before-seen-by-anyone crime lord Omar (boy does the script tie itself in knots to get us there, but it pays off) might be worth the price of admission alone. Actually, Hart, antic and overmatched at every turn as a high school security guard with dreams of more, is a brilliant comedic presence. He is so convincing as a shut-in nebbish physically overshadowed by anything in his path, including small children, that you find yourself, in spite of your better judgment, agreeing with the monstrous schemes perpetrated by James Payton in the name of keeping Ben as far away from the force as humanly possible, in principle if not in execution. Ben is, no matter how sympathetic (and often he is not), a man who should, in all honesty, be kept as far away from the force as humanly possible. You only wish, as an invested viewer, that James would find a nicer way to break it to him; instead it is this film’s belief that it must be broken to James that this hyperkinetic chihuahua of a man is the future of the Atlanta Police Department, because… acceptance?
In the end, the film seems to argue that Ben’s countless hours spent memorizing catalogues of Serbian weapons while playing off-brand Call of Duty, as well as his tenuous but absurdly beneficial connection to a man reclined in an intense gaming rig who goes by Assface and who will always be listening in to your at-home conversations via a gaming mic whether you are engaged in dirty talk or being held hostage by dirty cops, justify his desire to ride sidecar with a badass like Ice Cube as they clear Atlanta’s streets of nameless, faceless Serbian thugs (a very big problem in Atlanta, as I understand it.) Hart, as this film’s jaw-dropping box office take argues, is a massive star in the making, and, while the script and cast around him falter, he does nothing to contradict that argument in Ride Along; though one hopes that as Hart becomes one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars in the years to come, it does not continue to be at the expense of the (very high, I’m sure) admissions and graduation standards of the Atlanta Police Academy.