Kevin Hart spends most of Ride Along doing what he usually does, which is to say acting generally like a pre-teen who just noticed his first pubic hair. His character, Ben, is a natural foil to James (Ice Cube), the older brother of his girlfriend, Angela (Tika Sumpter), and the film opens with a bargain: If Ben, an Atlanta PD cadet, impresses James, a veteran undercover officer, on the titular outing, James will give Ben his blessing for marriage. The entire scenario seems initially custom-built for “old-fashioned” sexist types who believe they know what’s best for the women in their life, but Ben, shockingly, calls bullshit on this thinking about halfway through the film. “This isn’t Iraq,” Ben not so sensitively exclaims when James deems him unfit to marry Angela, suggesting that she can—gasp—make her own decisions.
Unfortunately, this utterance doesn’t change anything about the movie’s ready-made template. Following Ben’s outburst, and despite being a blithe misogynist and an overall asshole, James continues to be treated as a likable figure, And the filmmakers clearly side with him, as Sumpter’s character is used in the script solely to stoke James’s machismo or comfort Ben. She’s essentially a MacGuffin, appearing only as a utility to keep the men at odds until the very end when she has a gun to her head. The movie’s most damning crime is that James ultimately comes off as the most attractive character, which admittedly isn’t the biggest stretch considering the sheer abundance of “comical” whaling that Hart lets out over the course of the film.
James’s likability has a lot to do with the fact that he’s played by Ice Cube, who has retained a rather impressive on-screen magnetism over the years. He’s a solid straight man here, but the film’s stagnant crime plot consistently dashes any comedic lather he and Hart work up while picking up low-level criminals. Laurence Fishburne turns out to be a hammy hoot as Omar, a mysterious crime lord James has been tracking, but director Tim Story is incapable of balancing the throttling action set pieces with the film’s few potent comedic sequences. The movie clearly is meant to be a buddy-cop comedy, but the script, by a cadre of writers, tethers the film’s most engaging flights of humor to a rote action conceit in the name of dubious coherence.
People die in Ride Along, but the film remains unwaveringly lighthearted, refusing to openly engage the isolationism and hardened cynicism that’s often part and parcel of being a career police officer. (Why doesn’t James have his own family waiting at home?) This omission of the unnerving and stressful elements of police work softens the humor and dismantles the film’s paltry stakes. Then again, Story is pretty open about how seriously he takes our culture of violence. During a shoot-out, Ben employs skills he learned through gaming to save James’s life, and early on, Story cuts from an explosive chase involving James to Ben hunting the pixelated Taliban with his friend, Ass-Face. There’s a sense that a young adulthood spent playing violent video games is perfect training for policing, and that the inevitable, subsequent police brutality, which the filmmakers pointedly excuse when they’re not outright taking pleasure in it, is just boys being boys.