Better Stunts & Actors, Just As Derivative: 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw'
While we were all arguing whether Idris Elba should be the new 007, he opted to become the next T-800 instead.
In Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, the most agreeable of the innumerable Fast & Furious presentations, The Wire's Stringer Bell plays a straight-up Terminator, with stainless steel innards, glowing orange eyeballs, and a Google-glass-like POV datastream that gives him helpful notifications such as ATTACK IMMINENT whenever bickering-buddy good guys Dwayne Johnson (aka Hobbs) or Jason Statham (aka Shaw) cock a fist in his direction.
That's an observation top-billed Johnson makes himself while fleeing (!) the cybernetically-enhanced super-soldier, though Elba's character — he's called Brixton, like in the old Clash song "Guns of..." — prefers the sobriquet "Black Superman."
But he has also got more than a little Darth Vader in him, in that he's shown to be doing the bidding of a unseen superior with a digitally scrambled voice who scolds Brixton for his failures while his more-machine-now-than-man-body is welded back together, post-battle. The disembodied voice of Supreme Leader Snoke or whatever even orders Brixton to attempt to turn Hobbs & Shaw to the Dark Side instead of simply rubbing them out! There's petty larceny, there's grand theft auto.
All of which is to say: This sidebar presentation is still a genuine Fast & Furious movie, in the sense that almost everything in it has been shamelessly chop-shopped from the work of more innovative filmmakers and squished into a less memorable, more quickly digestible form, and calibrated to flatter its stars to the maximum extent possible. It breaks ground only in the area of punctuation, as its title contains two ampersands and a colon, a sequence of keystrokes seldom seen even in this late (?) hour of the Franchise Age.
This one comes to us from director David Leitch, who collaborated with his old stunt-team partner Chad Stahelski on John Wick before striking out on his own to direct, in short order, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and now this. Given his deep background staging fights and stunts and chases in-camera, it's not surprising that the set pieces are generally crisper and more dimensional here than in the mainline Fast & Furious films. Johnson and Statham are both considerably more athletic (and charismatic) performers than original-recipe F&F star/producer Vin Diesel, who must not be upstaged, so getting rid of that clumsy tomato can allows them to cut loose, humor-wise and fisticuffs-wise.
The one sprinkling of novelty comes in the final 15 minutes, when Hobbs leads his allies back to his ancestral home in Samoa (as played by the Hawaiian island of Kauai) for a last stand (like 007 did in Skyfall) after figuring out how to turn off their enemies' electronically-locked firearms (like the one 007 had in, um, Skyfall).
The binding aesthetic of the mayhem is still a bit sterile — it just doesn't have the element of (seemingly) genuine danger that has made the Johns Wicks, the last three Missions: Impossible and Mad Max: Fury Road all standouts of this genre.
But there are still some imaginative bits, like when several members of the Hobbs family daisy-chain their monster trucks to the front of a tow truck that's attempting to pull Brixton's helicopter out of the sky like a multi-ton barrel of monkeys. But all the other set pieces have a weird dearth of extras in them — the seeming absence of any bystanders is what makes a high-speed chase through London, for example, feel so low-stakes.
The plot this time is so far-out that it's wasted, frankly, on a film that just wants to use it as the scaffolding between nitrous-oxide buggy chases and extended stand-up routines from surprise comic guest stars. Brixton is part of some trans-humanist techno cult called Eteon that wants to thin the herd (like Thanos!) using "a programmable virus" (like the one in Mission: Impossible II!) and electronically upgrade the survivors to usher in the next phase of human evolution — or something like that.
One scene reveals that this group has minions who sit at rows of computer terminals surrounded by clouds — seriously, it looks like the way Powell and Pressburger depicted Heaven in A Matter of Life and Death, 70 years ago. Through these terminals, these goons can exert total control over the global media, which is how it takes exactly one line of dialogue for Brixton to publicly frame Hobbs, Shaw and new-player Vanessa Kirby (she's Shaw's MI6-agent sister, Hattie) as traitors (like Steve Rogers and, on more than one occasion, Ethan Hunt).
That media coup doesn't really explain why our trio of heroes is being sought by multiple law-enforcement agencies. In fact, the film provides zero evidence they're the subjects of a global manhunt; Hobbs simply announces it at one point. Maybe it's the kind of thing he needs to say to psych himself up for combat. The movie never bothers to demonstrate the effects of its MacGuffin supervirus either, which might give this genial flexfest some sense of urgency. Many scenes begin with this sort of exposition-as-dialogue, as though the actors are trying to remind themselves what they're supposed to be doing on this particular shooting day. Anyway, the three of them are forced to lam it, and Shaw (that's Statham, remember, the short one) makes sure his frenemy Hobbs' fake I.D. gives him the pseudonym "Mike Oxmall."
Say it out loud. That's the level this series operates on. Whether you find that funny or you don't, you're entirely correct. When it wants to up the sophistication, it points the camera at a Mini Cooper like the one Statham drove in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job (the 1969 original is one from which the Fast series has pilfered several big scenes) and has him say, "I used that for a job... in Italy." Wink!
The general sloppiness is the hallmark of a Chris Morgan Productions production. Morgan is the man whom H&S's press notes identify as the "narrative architect" of the Fast series. That's not be confused with the "saga visionary," which is the honorific Diesel has chosen for himself.
In any case, Morgan now shares screenplay credit with Drew Pearce, who helped out writer-director Shane Black on Iron Man 3 and writer-director Chris McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, and who made Hotel Artemis. In other words, there's an actual writer on the show this time, which explains why Hobbs & Shaw has something else that's new to this series: real jokes, "Mike Oxmall" notwithstanding. (Statham has called Pearce the "unsung hero" of the film for improving substantially upon Morgan's draft. Imagine the contribution Pearce must have made for a lowly screenwriter to be praised on a press junket by name.)
Hobbs & Shaw sets up as many sequels as its stars will show up for, but in the meantime, this is another entry that has forgotten that Statham's character murdered Han, the charming racer played by Sung Kang, several movies ago, before someone decided to retcon Shaw into a good guy. Hey, this series only has one self-identified architect and one self-proclaimed visionary. It can't be expected to sweat the small stuff. But it could use more sweat overall.
Correction July 31, 2019
A previous version of this story misspelled Sung Kang's name as Sun Kang.