Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham team up in a spinoff that delivers plenty of action, even if its humor stalls.
It was around the time I saw The Rock lead an army of Samoans with traditional weapons against an army of cybernetic soldiers while Jason Statham lights a ring of fire around the baddies that I thought, “Isn’t this franchise supposed to be about cars?” Granted, David Leitch’s latest entry into the Fast and The Furious franchise is a spin-off, as opposed to a straight sequel, and as such doesn’t have to follow the traditional formula. It’s an attempt to keep this nearly 20-year-old franchise from feeling bloated and tired. Fortunately, this entry mostly succeeds in keeping the momentum of its predecessors.
This new direction centers on two characters from the main series: DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson, Jumanji) and former mercenary Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, The Meg), who are called by the CIA to find a rogue MI6 agent who has stolen the C17 Virus. The Virus, nicknamed “Snowflake”, is a programmable bioweapon that will cause the unfortunate victim’s organs to liquify. The British government wants to treat the agent as a traitor, but the CIA is willing to give her Amnesty if she hands over the virus.
Due to the events of the main series, Hobbs and Shaw have a mutual loathing of each other and refuse to work together. With the pair going off to do their own thing, Hobbs quickly tracks down the rogue agent, who turns out to be Shaw’s sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby, Mission: Impossible- Fallout). It turns out that Hattie took the virus to keep it out of the hands of Brixton Lore (Idris Elba, Avengers: Infinity War), an ex-MI6 agent who has been turned into a superhuman cyborg by shadowy organization Etheon. The organization plans on releasing the virus to cull out the weakness of humanity. The pair will have to put aside their differences if they want to save humanity from this new threat.
Plotwise, Hobbs and Shaw doesn’t give anything we haven’t seen before and isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. The film makes it obvious that the pair are going to bicker and then make up, and it makes that aspect feel half-assed. Even a pair that is supposed to hate each other should have chemistry, but Johnson and Statham mostly phone in their animosity, save for a few good scenes. Their ostensibly humorous bickering mostly consists of taunts about ugly faces or grating voices that lack any real wit (maybe in the inevitable sequel the pair can go undercover on RuPaul’s Drag Race where they learn how to give a proper read). Once the two start to work in tandem they develop chemistry, but that doesn’t happen until we’re in the final act.
What it consistently delivers, however, is tons of action that will stimulate your adrenal gland, if not your cerebrum. Leitch (who directed the first John Wick, as well as Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2) knows how to keep the set pieces from becoming too one-note by alternating between car chases, gunplay, and old-fashioned fist fighting. He also knows that the action is the most important part of the movie, making sure that we don’t go more than 20 minutes without some sort of violence happening on screen. This keeps the 136-minute runtime feeling brisk, and is a welcome break from the comedic relief.
While the action is fantastic, there are some aspects of it that stretch belief. Some of them are hand-waived away by Brixton’s cybernetic enhancements (He starts out a chase scene by carrying Hattie while running vertically down the side of a skyscraper and ends it by managing to slide under two moving trucks without a scratch), but the ones portrayed by non-enhanced human became almost parodic, culminating in a scene where Hobbs manages to hang onto a chain that is attached to an ascending helicopter without any being lifted up. This ridiculous stunt made even the most enthusiastic audience members groan in protest.
Hobbs and Shaw attempts to transcend its meatball plot by leaning into its thematic elements, to mixed results. The story is set in motion by a mysterious group that wants to advance the human race with technological advancements. As such, the plot does venture into a Diet Coke version of the transhumanist debate, with it (predictably) landing on the side of “stay human” crowd. However, it doesn’t really focus on what constitutes humanity or the ethics of changing the human body with technology and instead focuses on the unethical way they want to achieve their goals. In the end, the transhumanist theme feels like a way for the filmmakers to inject aspects of the megapopular superhero genre into a franchise that was about as far removed from the superhero genre as an action film can get.
What the film consistently delivers… is tons of action that will stimulate your adrenal gland, if not your cerebrum.
The theme that is more successfully integrated into the film is the theme of family. Both Hobbs and Shaw start out alienated from their siblings, and as they grow to trust each other, they also reconcile with their family. Shaw’s family life is front and center with the story since he spends most of his time helping his sister. Statham and Kirby have great familial chemistry, playing well off each other with a mix of concern and exasperation from the others’ antics. There is also a humorous scene with Shaw’s mother, Magdalene, played by Helen Mirren with her typical charm.
While Shaw’s family drama takes up more plot, Hobb’s reconciliation with his family is far more enjoyable. The last act takes place in Hobbs’ birthplace of Samoa, a place he hasn’t visited in 25 years due to a fall out with his family. While he’s not eager to return home, his brother, Jonah (Cliff Curtis, The Meg) is the only person who can fix a needed part.
Not only does Hobbs’ return home lead to some endearing moments, especially with his mother (Lori Pelenise Tuisano), it also gives Hobbs & Shaw a shot of vitality. While the preceding action is fun, it’s also nothing you wouldn’t expect, and it takes place in your standard locales (LA, London, and Moscow). Not only is Samoa a less expected location for an action climax, but it is also tied directly with Hobbs’ Samoan heritage with the good guys using traditional weapons in the big battle and Hobbs intimidating his enemies with the siva tau (Samoan War dance) and speech before the fight. Granted, the aspects are tailored to appeal to a non-Samoan audience, but it still makes the climax feel fresh, even as the battle starts to veer into the ridiculous.
It’s obvious that this spin-off is an attempt to keep the franchise fresh with its superhero and spy elements while retaining the beloved characters, car chases, and male fantasies that made the main series a hit. It’s an attempt that works because, while it’s far from a masterpiece of the action genre, it will still keep thrill-seekers enraptured. That’s not bad for a franchise that is old enough to vote.
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw climbs into the driver’s seat Friday, August 2.