Occasionally inelegant though it may be, Hobbs & Shaw yet again sees the venerable Fast & Furious series successfully refreshing itself through another genre hop.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
One of the biggest indignities that the James Bond franchise has had to face in the nearly 13 years since Casino Royale, the last truly great entry is that not only have we spent the entirety of the 2010s getting better Bond movies than anything the Bond makers themselves have managed to put out, but that one of those franchises showing up the iconic super spy is the goddamn Fast & Furious series. 18 years ago, The Fast and the Furious was a dead-cheesy and not especially good Point Break rip-off, and the franchise’s evolution into an actual Bond movie with 2017’s Fate of the Furious was not exactly a logical one, which should make it all the more embarrassing that even with Fate being a mid-tier Furious movie it still effortlessly trounces boring tripe like SPECTRE. I like to imagine the Broccolis reacting to Fate in the same way Obadiah Stane did at his underlings’ failed attempts to reverse-engineer the Iron Man suit; “DOMINIC TORETTO BUILT THIS IN A GARAGE WITH A BOX OF CORONAS!”
In the past, I’ve equated my favourite blockbuster franchise operating today’s evolution to that of the Saints Row videogame franchise: starting as inauspicious self-serious rip-offs before evolving and reinventing themselves over and over again into gloriously over-the-top winking yet completely sincere genre cross-breeds with a fearlessness in the art of looking stupid which makes them utterly refreshing in a blockbuster landscape scared to have genuine fun. I feel that still holds true even now, but something which has become more obvious about this series in the era of other movie studios trying desperately to ride Marvel’s coattails is how it goes about the various genre shifts. The Dark Universe, the Spider-Man Spin-Offs, the smouldering ruins of the DC Extended Universe which are only just now starting to stitch themselves back together; none of these efforts were concerned about how their franchise pretentions would affect the movie currently in production, instead always having their eyes on the money-train further down the line they just assumed would come naturally. Fast & Furious, by contrast, sees what trends are currently popping at the time of their production – coming-of-age sport-ish movies with Tokyo Drift, heist flicks with Fast Five, globe-trotting spy movies with Fate – and enthusiastically goes “ok, let’s do the biggest possible version of that!”
There’s a commitment and palpable enthusiasm, where the mission statement effectively seems to be “anything you can do, we can do bigger and if that bigger results in better than that’s fantabulous,” which combines with main series scribe Chris Morgan’s Saturday morning cartoon/anime serial writing to inoculate against any potential cynicism brought upon by such blatant trend-chasing moves and the growing egotism of its lead stars. So, yes, on the one hand Hobbs & Shaw, the first official spin-off of this franchise, is Universal’s blatant effort to transform their biggest franchise into a proper MCU competitor and also something that’s mainly come about in order to keep The Rock onside with as minimal exposure to Vin Diesel’s alleged candy-ass as possible. But, on the other hand, aside from some inelegant worldbuilding and the slight push towards something that sort-of resembles super-powers, Hobbs & Shaw doesn’t have all that much in common with the MCU. Instead, rather than looking at what’s currently popping for its latest genre-hopping refresh, Morgan and director David Leitch have opted to look backwards and resurrect a subgenre we largely don’t get anymore: the 80s buddy-cop action-comedy as shot through the prism of a 90s blockbuster.
To wit, former series antagonists DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and disgraced British Special Forces assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), whose latently old-school homoerotic barbs back-and-forth in Fate were damn-near the best part of that movie, once again team up in order to track down Shaw’s missing MI6 agent sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who was forced to inject herself with a deadly time-release virus and go on the run to keep it out the hands of the eugenicist terror group Eteon and its cybernetically-enhanced heavy, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba). That’s the simple version of it, anyway. Perhaps because of its nature as a spin-off shorn of any direct Fast & Furious connections to the eternal consternation of Tyrese, Hobbs & Shaw also loads itself down with hitherto unmentioned backstories and briefly-mentioned-then-quickly-discarded side characters and contrived reasons to leave our three heroes unable to call family-based back-up which nonetheless doesn’t fundamentally alter the narrative of the movie at all. The worst of the 90s blockbuster side is in effect there, along with an overlong 135-minute runtime and sequences which smack of self-indulgence and act as reminders as to why we left this kind of film behind – notably two unspoiled big-star cameos from old buddies of Leitch and Johnson that are fun but whose scenes definitely end up dragging through shaggy riffing.
Conversely, the best of the crossbreeding between 80s testosterone-fuelled action romps and 90s over-the-top blockbusters provide a refreshing counteractive to the restrained, diluted, and at-times rather weedy blockbusters being pushed out today. Do you know how long it’s been since I was treated to genuine banter in a tentpole action movie? Where two bullish hotheads so coked to the gills on raw machismo that prolonged exposure to them causes one to spontaneously sprout a ZZ Top beard, regardless of gender, take turns sparring in gloriously overblown proclamations of their own masculinity? Cos Hobbs & Shaw made me realise that I have dearly missed that kind of cheesy rapport in my action movies, as Shaw declares that having to look Hobbs in the face is akin to having his balls dragged through shards of broken glass whilst Hobbs relays in great detail how, if Hattie wanted to, he would let Shaw’s sister scale his “mountain” over and over again. There are legitimate dick and your mom jokes tossed around throughout this thing and every one of them is somehow inspired and legitimately funny!
Immature? Yeah, probably. Hobbled by the 12a rating that Leitch, Morgan and co-writer Drew Pearce otherwise take a great joy in pushing to its absolute limits? Undoubtedly, if only because it means we’ve been denied the climactic moment of the pair consummating their burgeoning lust for one another with a good hatefuck – it’s an old joke-line against this series, but Hobbs & Shaw especially is drenched in homoeroticism with the title characters displaying more sexual chemistry than the actual shoehorned-in budding romance between Hattie and Hobbs which, like all of The Rock’s on-screen romances, has the sexual chemistry of Beyoncé and a solid block of marble. But at least it’s a personality, something 2019’s other blockbusters have decided is an optional extra to be unconcerned with like cupholders in Mercedes-Benzes. Statham and Johnson recapture that sparking chemistry from their brief time together in Fate and manage to extend it across an entire film so that, even when Hobbs & Shaw threatens to burst due to the sheer occasionally-exhausting amount of stuff going on in it, they always provide a rock-solid winning foundation the film can return to. Idris Elba is clearly having a riot as the self-professed “bad guy,” the twinkle in his eye when he has to deliver the line “genocide, schmenocide” with a straight face is a joy to behold, whilst Vanessa Kirby almost steals the film entirely with a full-force physical performance that a just movie industry would be gift-wrapping an action franchise of her own for by Monday morning.
As you can probably tell by the fact that somebody in this movie genuinely delivers the line “genocide, schmenocide,” Hobbs & Shaw does not take itself particularly seriously. More than any other entry in this franchise to date, it is willing to play its various ridiculous action setpieces and emotional beats for self-aware laughs than earnest melodrama. This is a movie that knows how utterly cheesy and nonsensical it is, proudly aiming for mid-80s Joel Silver productions like Commando and Road House, even hilariously having multiple montages set to soundtrack cuts with cross-dissolves and swooping helicopter shots that give off the impression music video-era Michael Bay ghost-directed them. Perhaps surprisingly, these tendencies don’t clash particularly with the script’s hyper-earnest beats about the overarching theme of Fast & Furious movies: family, here manifesting in the biological sense rather than a surrogacy and largely sped through in the crowded third-act. It’s the right kind of dumb and simple, those Saturday morning cartoon vibes boiling over in a final co-op fist-fight in the rain that reveals the movie to secretly be the gnarliest Care Bears episode ever made. Teamwork makes the dream work, after all, whether that be sharing toys or taking turns punching a resurrected cyborg in the face.
And for all that Hobbs & Shaw ends up breaking with Fast & Furious tradition in its efforts to plant seeds for its own separate series – you do not need to have seen any prior entries in the franchise to enjoy this one, the series’ elastic continuity and character history on the verge of snapping completely thanks to much of Shaw’s new backstory – those are still the things that set it out from every other franchise currently operating. Leitch drenches the film in a relentless style (including so many dolly zooms one may inquire as to whether he’s getting a tax break from The Society for Raising Awareness of the Coolness of Dolly Zooms) which is fast becoming his signature, and which I am so grateful for in this era of anonymous second-unit pre-vis direction of such blockbusters. But the true moment I was sold on Hobbs & Shaw, for all its niggling flaws and imperfections, came during a beat in the climax involving an old Fast & Furious standby, complete with the same cheesy CGI visualisation as it had back in 2001. It was at that point where I, amidst my own giddy uproarious laughter, found myself saying, “this is why I love this glorious, ridiculous, dumbass series.”
Nobody else is making Fast & Furious movies and nobody else is making movies with the same earnest joy and lovable smart-dumbness that is the quintessence of the franchise’s success. Hobbs & Shaw, even with its ungainly running time and slight wobbles over the line separating “dumb” from “stupid,” is yet more evidence that maybe they should.