If the Fast and Furious franchise is a pedal-to-the-metal machine, Hobbs and Shaw is more cart and horse. Albeit from the same stable. A spin-off from the still-growing F&F universe, Hobbs and Shaw takes the two antagonists and throws them together in a movie where they can measure manhoods, say ‘asshole’ a lot and send up their own, and each other’s, persona. Probably sounded better in the pitch. But thankfully this film is saved from being a complete car crash by the presence of Idris Elba’s almost Shakespearean baddie; and by stage-and-screen upcomer Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in The Crown; and Mission: Impossible - Fallout).
When a programmable bio-virus goes missing, the spy-guys in LA and London reach for their ballsiest assets - lawman Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and shady operative Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). That each guy hates the other makes for a messy assignment. Especially when genetically-enhanced villain Brixton (Elba) is also after the virus. But it’s about to get personal because Deckard’s estranged sister Hattie (Kirby) has implanted the virus in herself to keep it safe and - obviously – save the world.
With David Leitch on helming duties, hopes are high. Leitch, co-director of John Wick and director of Atomic Blonde, two of the best low-budget actioners in recent years, knows how to do action. He’s a stuntman after all. But in stepping outside the free-flowing F&F world, Hobbs and Shaw loses the light and the dark. For all the preposterous set-pieces, F&F still had an underworld edginess, main characters got killed, something was at stake. Johnson and Statham had a sparky antagonism that energised the films, Jekyll and Hyde-like, in a ‘who can you trust?’ world.
But here, clearly going for primary colours, somehow it comes out grey. Second-hand ideas don’t help. Baddie Brixton has been cyber-enhanced into a super-strong, bullet-defying, boundy-leapy person. You mean like Bucky Barnes the titular Winter Soldier in the Captain America and Avengers movies? Indeed. But they were superhero fantasies. Injecting the serum of sci-fi into this kind of fantasy – shiny cars and muscly violence – doesn’t work.
Elba’s fascist case for improving mankind through genetics is spoken with mellifluous cadences of real beauty. You hang on his every word. Whereas Johnson and Statham strand us on a plane with an unfunny, super-dull kiddie rant: ‘mine’s bigger, I’m tougher, you’re an a-hole’ blah-blah. The F&F films aren’t high art, but they certainly know the rules of cinema: show not tell, action speaks character.
And the action has its moments. A multi-motorbike chase through the London streets has an edgy verve with punchy, body-slamming results. Three trucks get hooked up to a helicopter, the tug-of-war taking place on the vertiginous edge of a cliff. But the screen mostly comes alive when Deckard and Shaw go at each other, or at bunches of bad guys. The choreography is 12A-lite but as inventive as you’d expect from Leitch, whose hand-to-hand combat scenes in Atomic Blonde are among the best in cinema.
Making the leap from smaller-scale action movies to bigger-bucks, mega-bang blockbusters is hard. It needs a vision and a visual style. Michael Bay, for all his detractors, has that in spades. So too John Woo; and Anthony and Joe Russo (Avengers). And James Wan, who stepped up from lower-budget creepy horrors (like Saw, The Conjuring) to Furious 7. But Hobbs and Shaw has all the hallmarks of a failure of vision – blurry special effects, noisy dialogue and characters who, cut out of their milieu, turn into caricatures.
Hurray for Vanessa Kirby, deftly blending the martial arts with wit and vulnerability, a 3D person in a 2D film. But Leitch ups the second-hand feel with déjà vu cameos from Ryan Reynolds, reprising his motormouth persona from the Deadpool movies (directed by Leitch); and Eddie Marsan, re-treading his foreign-accented geek-in-trouble persona from Atomic Blonde (Leitch again). And a non-funny Kevin Hart as an Air Marshall. Then there’s the climactic battle that starts in inky darkness and seconds later it’s broad daylight. Maybe Samoan sunrises are super-speedy, but it’s a jolting moment that wrecks the visuals.
Fast and Furious 9 is due out in 2020 directed by Justin Lin (the original F&F as well as the fifth and sixth instalments). Remains to be seen whether Hobbs and Shaw will return in that or in a sequel to their own movie. If the film gods were watching, let’s hope it’s not the latter.