‘Ride Along’: Familiar plot steadily goes berserk

In the movies, casting a hot comedian at just the right time is probably a combination of calculation and luck. How can you know somebody’s going to be cresting a year or two before signing him to a contract?

Whatever it was for the makers of “Ride Along,” they’ve caught Kevin Hart at an ideal moment.

Hart has been knocking around doing comedy specials and stand-up, along with roles in ensembles movies like “This Is the End.”

His theatrically released standup film, “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain,” did surprisingly strong business on relatively few screens last summer, and his prominence in the ads for “Grudge Match” (in which his role was small) suggested his perceived box-office value.

In “Ride Along,” Hart gets full co-starring status and lots of room to roam. The movie’s blueprint is “48 HRS.” and similar cop movies, with Hart in the Eddie Murphy role — which means Ice Cube plays Nick Nolte, I suppose.

Hart’s character, Ben, isn’t a policeman yet, but he’s applied to the academy. He desperately wants to impress his future brother-in-law, sourpuss Atlanta detective James (that would be Ice Cube) who has special contempt for this annoying wannabe.

James plans to get rid of Ben by inviting him to ride along during a policeman’s day and forcing him into a series of humiliating situations. Of course, stuff gets real, and things tighten up just when the joke should’ve been played out.

The good news is that despite this familiar and implausible setup, the movie is funny and so is Hart. His vertical challenges (he’s 5-foot-2) are frequently mentioned, but mostly you get the impression that Hart was allowed to improvise through each scene on whatever subject was at hand, as Ice Cube plays straight man to his partner’s inspirations.

The approach should collapse when actual criminals turn up and things get tense, but the movie’s climactic scene is actually one of its funniest — it works exactly as it should, and certain well-placed lines pay off like gangbusters.

Director Tim Story made the likable “Barbershop” (2002) with Ice Cube, then got lost in the big-budget “Fantastic Four” movies. He guides this one with an easy, confident touch, and except for one too many arguments between the two guys, no scene outwears its welcome.

Tika Sumpter can’t do much as Ben’s girlfriend (the relationship starts well, but that’s not what this movie’s really about) and Laurence Fishburne strides through to lend his weight to a couple of scenes.

It’d be a better movie with more material for other actors, but “Ride Along” is frankly a vehicle for Kevin Hart and his fast-talking performance. On those terms, it’s a raucous success.

“Ride Along” (three stars)

Rated: PG-13 for violence, subject matter.

An Atlanta cop (Ice Cube) takes his despised future brother-in-law (Kevin Hart) to ride along on a policeman’s day, the better to wreck his dreams of joining the force. The plot’s familiar, but the movie gets funnier as the guys get into more trouble, and standup comedy star Hart improvises plenty of crazy stuff along the way.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Sundance, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.

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