Ride Along: Kevin Hart, Small Cop

The stand-up standout takes a detour to movie stardom with the sub-ordinary cop comedy

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Quantrell D. Colbert / Universal Pictures / AP

From left: Ice Cube and Kevin Hart in "Ride Along."

In a time when films are either gigantic, nine-figure epics or indie pictures on a pauper’s budget, a middling movie has its theoretical charms. Viewers needn’t prepare to be awed or do their Sundance homework. A movie of meager ambitions sets the comforting bar of low expectations. We go simply to be diverted, mildly entertained. For decades, that was Hollywood’s promise to audiences, fulfilled in the B movie, but now nearly extinct. Today, so few films have those modest old ambitions that Ordinary is the new Extraordinary.

Ride Along could be a new example of that endangered species. It doesn’t make you wait till the end for the actor and director credits; rather, the movie spills them over the opening scene of a heist — just like the mediocre old days. It’s also a buddy-cop movie, virtually the Pringles of film genres. And its stars are Ice Cube, the rapper whose film career stretches from Boyz N the Hood in 1991 to another buddy-cop movie, 21 Jump Street, two years ago, and Kevin Hart, whose stand-up stardom has led him to more prominent movie roles.

(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Kevin Hart)

In the script credited, or debited, to Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the two cops aren’t bantering pals but bitter adversaries: the veteran James Payton (Cube), tough, honest and weary, and Ben Barber (Hart), a high school security guard who dreams of joining the Atlanta PD. He is also mouthy, accident-prone and, crime of the century, engaged to marry James’ foxy sister Angela (Tika Sumpter). So James takes him on a one-day ride-along in his squad car, exacting the promise that if Ben doesn’t cut it on his “training day” he’ll get out of Angela’s life. Expect screwups, peril from a drug gang and the eventual bonding of opposites with complementary skills. Or, in the tradition of the middling movie, expect next to nothing.

Directed by Tim Story, whose career has embraced both the soft, black-angled comedy genre (BarbershopThink Like a Man) and the Marvel epic (Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel), Ride Along has one distinctive calling card: Hart. A 5-ft. 2-in. bundle of friendly aggression and cries of plaintive bafflement that he makes sound like hallelujahs, Hart has scored in two stand-up movies, the 2011 Feel My Pain and last year’s Let Me Explain, which earned $33 million (on a $2.5 million budget) and is the top comedy concert film since Eddie Murphy Raw in 1987. Hart’s funny-charming turn in Think Like a Man stoked the fantasy that he could be the next Murphy or Richard Pryor: a stand-up comic who became a platinum movie star. Eddie hasn’t been that for a decade or more, and Pryor died in 2005.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Think Like a Man)

Hart’s Ben earns his salary scaring kids into staying in school: by telling one potential truant that he could end up a disfigured war veteran who won’t be able to walk to the unemployment line because “You got no feet!” But his vocation, to the preposterous exclusion of gorgeous Angela, is playing a video game called Blackhammer. A maestro of virtual violence, Ben can’t control or calm Atlanta street life. When James tells him to get a motorcycle gang out of a no-parking zone, one of the dudes — no, it’s a woman biker with a goatee — spits on his shoe. Enraged but unfazed, Ben tells the woman to “go get Purell and some Baby Wipes” before James saves him from certain gelding.

Well of course Ben’s bantam bravado will help James as he faces down the drug lord Omar (Laurence Fishburne in a late visit); and Ice Cube’s angry tilde eyebrows will relax into grudging gratitude. But too many of the scenes play like discarded bits from In Living Color. John Leguizamo, who a decade ago might have been what Hart hopes to be, is wasted in a supporting role. And, crucial mistake, Hart plays more strident than sweet this time and risks forfeiting his audience appeal.

The one minor hope — that this Kevin Hart, Small Cop might lead him toward the box-office empyrean that Kevin James enjoyed after his Paul Blart: Mall Cop hit it big when released five years ago this weekend — now looks almost hopeless.

Too bad that Ride Along never makes it to Ordinary; it sinks into sub-. This is a movie you keep watching only from lethargy.

(READ: Mall Cop and Other Disreputable Pleasures)