The Pitch: Remember The Fate of the Furious, where disgraced DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) formed an unlikely partnership with literal villain of the previous film Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)? Well, here’s a whole movie of that. Now spies and fixers for their respective governments, Hobbs and Shaw are reluctantly drawn back together when Shaw’s sister, MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), steals a virus with the ability to “melt you from the inside” and goes on the lam. The two don’t like each other much, but circumstances force them to work together to save the world (and Hattie) from super-powered baddie Brixton (Idris Elba) — a guy with a billion dollars’ worth of cybernetic enhancements courtesy of a mysterious corporation and a hard-on for making the human race ‘evolve.’
Hobbs and the Shaws: It can be argued that Johnson and Statham saved the Fast & Furious franchise from obscurity. Johnson, long recognized as ‘franchise Viagra’, spiced up the series with his smoldering charisma and literal buckets of baby oil in Fast Five, and Statham proved a formidable foil for the family in Furious 7. Now, the two villains-turned-heroes are forced to work together in the wake of their test run as an action-comedy duo in Fate, and the results are at once pure Fast and decidedly un-Fast.
Structurally, there’s little that will surprise anyone who’s given a cursory glance to the buddy action movie genre: there are two bickering punch-men who have to set aside their differences to save the day, a doomsday device with a ticking clock, secret corporations with hidden facilities guarded by an army of faceless goons, and a growly but underdeveloped villain. (Not unlike his turn in Star Trek Beyond, Elba doesn’t get much to do here but growl about ‘the future’ and throw his considerable intensity into a workmanlike baddie role.) The spin here, then, is just doing those things really well, and getting two of the most charismatic macho men in show business to usher us through the chaos.
Strangely enough, the very thing that worked best about these two in previous films — that preening, smirking antagonism between Hobs and Shaw — is maybe the film’s weakest element. With all their respective barbs about Statham being short and British or Johnson being big, dumb and clumsy, Hobbs & Shaw basically amounts to a 120-minute dick-measuring contest between two of 21st-century action filmmaking’s greatest sons. But these moments do get old, longtime Fast screenwriter Chris Morgan and co-writer Drew Pearce leaning way too hard on this acerbic back-and-forth to carry the laughs. The first couple of times, it’s cute to see Statham and Johnson get in each other’s faces, sweatily insulting each other like it’s the night before a big tag-team match at WrestleMania. But every third scene is like that, and it gets pretty damn old before too long.
Thank God for Kirby, then, who’s a delightful mediator between them, and a fine action star in her own right. Hardly a damsel in distress, Kirby’s Hattie holds her own alongside the boys, and she’s got a fantastic physical presence without being overly sexualized. Sure, she gets captured a few times — she has the MacGuffin in her blood, after all — but she always manages to get herself out before Hobbs and Shaw can get to her. It’s not perfect, and the rest of the film’s women (especially Eiza González’s international-thief contact) get frustratingly short shrift, but at least this series avoids a few of the creakier aspects of old-school macho action films.
Robbing Leitch: The Fast franchise is best known for the quality of its action escapades, and new director David Leitch (the first John Wick, Atomic Blonde) is a sensible choice to helm this kind of outsized mayhem. Some of the most effective moments contain all manner of Leitch-ian signposts – intricately-choreographed fistfights in neon-soaked apartments, a clear sense of action geography, the concussive nature of the editing. Some setpieces work better than others, and you’ll occasionally long for the full-practical mayhem of a Justin Lin-directed Fast joint. But Leitch excels in the hand-to-hand stuff, especially when he’s got such capable action stars to work with.
But Leitch also directed Deadpool 2, and boy will he let you know it — chiefly in the form of Hobbs and Shaw’s respective government lackeys being Ryan Reynolds (in full motormouth form, basically Deadpool without the mask) and Rob Delaney. Delaney’s fun in his one-scene cameo, but Reynolds constantly feels like he’s campaigning for the third lead in a film that already has enough action stars. Same with Kevin Hart, who cameos as an air marshal who overhears their conversation on a plane and wants to be the “third squaddie.” Rather than lighten up the proceedings, Reynolds and Hart just steal focus, their appearances feeling like string-pulling on the parts of Leitch and Johnson.
All Roads Lead Home: As deliberately brain-dead as Hobbs & Shaw aims to be, it exists in an interesting dialogue with the rest of the Fast & Furious series, especially where it concerns the oft-memed issue of ‘family’. For Dom Toretto’s gang of car-stealing misfits, it’s about choosing a family you love; Hobbs and Shaw, on the other hand, have to learn to love the family they have.
These are the two characters in the main franchise most committed to their biological family after all — Hobbs is a great dad to his daughter Sam (Eliana Sua), but rocky relationships with his mother and brother in Samoa leave him (and her by extension) estranged from them. Deckard, meanwhile, struggles with the fractures that have split the normally tight-knit Shaws: his mother Magdalene (A lovely-as-always Helen Mirren cameo) languishes in prison, while his recent allegiance-flipping escapades have forced him away from Hattie’s life.
But the final act, in which Hobbs and the Shaws flee to Samoa to fight Brixton on their home turf, allows both protagonists to come to terms with their mistakes, and each other as a result. It’s a delightful choice, one presumably fueled by Johnson’s desire to rep where he came from, and its inclusion is more than welcome. The gorgeous cliffsides and coastal plains are absolutely gorgeous to look at, and our heroes are refreshingly surrounded by a cast of intensely charismatic Pacific Islanders. It’s an inventive stage for the film’s most effective action in the climax, complete with a Rock/Roman Reigns team up and one of the more ridiculously entertaining car stunts the franchise has attempted to this point.
The Verdict: For the first two acts, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw largely functions as a lunkheaded 21st-century buddy comedy, a feature-length extension of the shit-talking kayfabe the pair engaged in last movie. But Johnson, Statham, Leitch, and Kirby manage to pull out of its tailspin by the end with a killer last act that manages to rope in some surprising emotional stakes (and some very-welcome Samoan representation). It’s the kind of new-macho action picture that wears its cornball heart on its sleeve — one where the misfit leads learning to work together is literally, mechanically, the way to defeat the bad guy. It may not have Dom and the gang, but Hobbs & Shaw is as self-indulgently silly and giddily earnest as its fellow Fast brethren.
Oh, and at one point Eddie Marsan wields a flamethrower. If that doesn’t get your ass in a seat, I don’t know what will.
Where’s It Playing? Hobbs & Shaw stomps into theaters and beats your ass like a Cherokee drum Friday, August 2nd.