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'Ride Along 2' beats 'Star Wars' — but also points to the Kevin Hart problem

The super-popular performer needs to stop making weak films fathoms below his talents.

“Star Wars” may be “Star Wars,” but this weekend it had nothing on the latest Kevin Hart. “Ride Along 2” debuted to $39.5 million in its opening (holiday) weekend, while “The Force Awakens” slid to third place, with “only” $25.1 million. In fact, the latter was even beat by the movie where Leonardo DiCaprio crawls his way across frigid hellscapes for two-and-a-half hours to (maybe, probably) claim his first-ever Oscar. “The Revenant” ratcheted up another $29.5 million, bringing its tally up to just shy of $100 million, which is good news as it cost $150 million and almost a year to shoot.

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In even better news, “13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s roided-up recreation of the Battle of Benghazi — intended to fire up the anti-Hillary base — basically failed, pulling in a mere $16 million against a $50 million budget. Perhaps the Benghazi controversy has been overstated?

But back to “Ride Along 2”: Despite scoring the top spot, it performed a hair under the first one, which netted $41.5 million this time two years prior. Sequels — especially ones that cost double the original — are supposed to grow, not almost hit the same mark.

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Does this not bode well for Kevin Hart? Not necessarily. He’s got a good thing going, cranking out buddy comedies that often have little going for them apart from Kevin Hart. The performer may sputter up a storm, firing off ad-libs at a steady clip, but the films themselves are mere blue prints — rickety structures to support him and his “hey, I’m short” yuks.

They are, to put it bluntly, a fad — a house of cards that will one day come tumbling down when people finally grow weary of their same-y-ness. Hart has said, including to us, that he sees no reason to change up his game, to try something new. The movies (“The Wedding Ringer,” “Think Like a Man,” “Get Hard”) do reliably well, so why mess with a working formula?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may make business sense, but it’s anathema to art, which is what Hart, despite his bids for the low-brow, is doing. He’s an undeniably talented guy, and his performances themselves are always enjoyable. But the films are weak, even when they also include someone like Ice Cube, who in the “Ride Along”s proves an ideal comedy partner: snarling contemptuously as Hart makes his character even more annoying and desperate to please.

When Hart’s cottage industry collapses, it will be interesting to see where he goes next. He doesn’t have to try drama, which he’s never come close to doing, but he could wind up with a real filmmaker — someone who’ll find another way to tap into the rage underlying his manic shtick. He’d make a great Quentin Tarantino actor. He’d even work well with Paul Thomas Anderson, who with “Punch-Drunk Love” unlocked the angry side of Adam Sandler, well before he’d decayed into a sleepy bore.

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You can even sense in Hart’s films a subtle desire to change up the style. In “Ride Along” he plays the wimp who defers to a more confident screen partner. In “The Wedding Ringer” and “Get Hard” he’s the confident one. He still has flaws, but they make him an actually interesting character. That didn’t make either of the films better — “Get Hard” is particularly thoughtless and sloppy when it comes to button-pushing — but there’s something more than Kevin Hart doing Kevin Hart. He even (technically!) did a David Mamet movie, and one that was almost up to his level.

Right now Hart isn’t breaking from tradition, but eventually the only thing that might be profitable for him would be hitching his sails to someone who cares about shots, cares about content and finds a new and exciting side to a popular performer. Otherwise he’ll find himself about as fresh as, say, David Spade.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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