RIDE ALONG 2 Review: This Reloaded Buddy-Cop Action Comedy Is Shooting Blanks
Even though 2014's Ride Along was pretty terrible, it somehow managed to became a huge box office hit, earning over $154 million during its theatrical run off of a $25 million budget. In an era of franchises, reboots, and the overarching quest for easy money, the sequel to the buddy cop comedy was an inevitability. I can say outright that for all my trepidation leading up to this, Ride Along 2 actually manages to be marginally better than the original. However, nothing exists in a vacuum. And and when taking into account other modern police procedurals, buddy comedies, and recent real world issues, watching Ride Along 2 reveals the sorry state of affairs we are truly in.
Ice Cube and Kevin Hart reprise their roles as Detective James Payton and newly appointed Officer Ben Barber of the Atlanta PD. In the first movie, Ben sought to prove himself worthy of marrying James' sister Angela, played by Tika Sumpter, and along the way managed to help him bust up a big gun-running operation. Now that he has earned his badge, Ben seeks further validation and hopes to prove himself worthy of being a detective, partner, and trusted part of James' family by assisting him in cracking a smuggling operation that takes them to Miami in search of a hot lead; "Brothers In Law" in the truest sense. Even though I haven't always enjoyed all of his movies, I appreciate and respect the growing body of cinematic work that Ice Cube has lent his talents to. On the same token, while I am not a fan of most of Kevin Hart's filmography, I've enjoyed his stand-up career and think he is genuinely hilarious and one of the most entertaining comedians working today. I say all this in order to emphasize that for all the quality elements present on paper, the central conceit of a gruff cop in cahoots with a hyperactive goofball just Does Not Work. Cube has his mean mugging down to a science and Hart throws himself into the role with all his energy, but the jokes are mostly bland and the cop action elements are watered down and barely perfunctory.
This lackluster chemistry was a problem inherent in the original as well, and I suspect that casting Ken Jeong and Olivia Munn in the sequel was an attempt shake up the formula. Unfortunately for us, their additions amount to diminishing returns. I'm told that Munn has done great work in the HBO series Newsroom, and I was impressed by her brief role in Magic Mike, but her performance here as Miami PD Detective Maya Cruz feels like cameo casting of a famous model who just barely gets over on her line readings with screen presence. I'm fairly certain that's the last thing an actress like Munn wants to be considered, especially after all this time trying to build a respectable career.
Ken Jeong doesn't fair much better in his role as A.J., a hacker who plays dual roles as the staple “witness to protect” and “geek tech support”. If you've already had your fill of Jeong's “'annoying side character” routine, you're definitely gonna suffer through this iteration. A.J. ghets embroiled in the hijinks because he skims money from the main bad guy and serves as a witness to a murder, but it all just seems like a poorly constructed device to get Hart and Jeong to play their buffoonery off of each other, which I'd say is successful only about 30% of the time. At one point during a meet-up that exists only for a quick gag, A.J. Says to Barber “I didn't really think this through”, and that statement applies to his character and really the movie as a whole.
Speaking of the main bad guy, perhaps the most egregious waste of star power comes via the casting of the venerable Benjamin Bratt as Antonio Pope, a slimy business mogul seeking to globalize his illicit smuggling empire. He speaks with a terrible stereotypical Latino villain accent straight out of a shitty '90s made for cable action movie, and his rote villain speechifying with his hired goons and between the protagonists directly reflect that caliber of dialogue.
The whole affair reeks of that same straight to video '80s-'90s cop aesthetic. There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of retro-styled comedic crime caper in 2016, but the problem is we've seen them deconstructed and reimagined so well in recent years that anything which doesn't bring something new to the table to re-contextualize it all just seems played the fuck out. A good point of comparison would be Ice Cube's other buddy cop adventures in 21/22 Jump Street. Those films revel in cheesy '80s and '90s tropes, but brilliantly twist and subvert expectations of them with jokes that are fresh and relevant to a contemporary audience. In the case of Ride Along 2, what's unexpectedly frustrating is bearing witness to small flashes of brilliance which exist on that Lord & Miller/Mckay/Wright re-contextual wavelength, only to get mired down by tired old jokes and formulaic structure.
In particular, the car chase on the streets of Miami hinted at in the official trailer becomes a standout action/comedy sequence thanks to an inventive twist. As Ben takes the wheel, he gets “into the zone” by visualizing the situation at hand as a Grand Theft Auto-style video game (the previous film and a scene in the beginning of this sequel establish Barber as a substantially skilled video game fanatic). A video game life bar and score meter appear upon the screen, as the cars, people, and other obstacles in their path phase in and out between reality and 3D CG pixelated delusion.This one intriguing sequence hints at the greater central conceit that could have been, instead of the worn out buddy template we are stuck with.
Although Ben Barber comes across as awkward and inept, James himself takes note of his occasional moments of profound insight and genius. During a scene where the two try to get information out of A.J.'s uncooperative girlfriend, Ben uses a clever bit of “side-chick”/cellphone psychology to coax her into helping them. At several points in both movies, his weapons knowledge derived from first-person shooters establishes important deductions which move the plot along. And more than a simple Good Cop/Bad Cop routine using Payton's hard nosed sensibilities, Ben's disarming aloofness makes him surprisingly personable and a true asset in the process of interrogation and information collection. There was real potential for a new age “idiot savant” character who proves his worth to his brother and the law with his Peculiar Set of Autistic/ADHD Skills. Instead, the plot stumbles along through nonsensical contrivances, all in the service of some lame jokes. That a beautiful and intelligent woman like Angela would marry a clod who bumbled his way into a uniform for no apparent reason is indicative of the absurdity of this entire premise. (...Then again, my brown sugar mama married my foolhardy Army Green behind, so maybe that aspect is one of the actual few plausible things in this movie....)
All in all, more than simply being bad, Ride Along 2 is disappointing. There are kernels of interesting ideas at work here, but the creators involved clearly have no interest in pursuing that particular course of action. Beyond that, one thing that gnawed at the back of my mind while watching this film was the portrayal of potentially dangerous and outright illegal police work at the heart of most police comedies, and how that device works in the current climate of awareness regarding police brutality and illicit institutional practices in law enforcement. With that in mind, Ride Along 2 actually comes off as pretty tame. The one scene that may give people pause is shown in the trailer, when Ben shoots the Latino associate of Detective Cruz after being startled. There's plenty of real world examples of shamefully/dangerously unhinged and under-trained cops who open fire under duress without following established protocols. That said, I would say that the construction of the scene is so farcical that to admonish it as a endorsement of poor police practices would be a severe over-reaction. It comes off more like a Naked Gun gag than anything else. Alas, if only it were a fraction as funny.
One other consideration bubbling under the surface of all this is in relation to the recent consternation regarding the 2016 Academy Award nominations and the absence of substantial racial and ethnic diversity. There's a lot to discuss about the distinctions between institutional racism, confirmation bias, unconscious prejudices, and simply the case of artists who deserve recognition when others yielding work of arguably lesser quality get a nod. This is not to imply that Ride Along 2 is in any measure an academic contender whose merits I fear will be unjustly overlooked. Not by a long shot. Rather, I am dismayed about the importance of and relationship between opportunity and equality. As some BMD commenters put it, “equality is the right for movies and actors to suck equally”, and I concur with that wholeheartedly. If white people can get Daddy's Home, Dirty Grandpa and Paul Blart, other ethnicities have the right to their Machete Kills, Madea movies, or whatever Black Foolishness Marlon Wayans is up to these days. Having said that... it's reeeaallll hard to keep a straight face and say that minorities are underrepresented in cinema and don't get recognition for our accomplishments when we keep churning bullshit like this out. Its almost painful to see this cast of talented actors of color headlining such nonsense; its almost like we're daring mainstream media to not take us seriously.
Still, it's difficult to gauge what exactly the success of movies like this means. Are majority/white audiences eating up this coonery buffoonery because it sticks to traditional expectations, or is the public at large finally honestly and truly accepting the merits of people like Hart and Cube because they trust them to bring their brand of broad strokes, common-man comedy, no matter the color of their skin? No one expected Ride Along to be the hit it became, and initial box office reports indicate that Ride Along 2, of all movies, will be the film to finally knock Star Wars: The Force Awakens from the number one spot. In the end, it's just a shame that paltry slop like Ride Along 2 gets made for audiences hungry for entertaining stories to eat up, with seemingly no regard for the content of its characters.