The Fast & the Furious franchise’s slow evolution into whatever they goddamn want it to be at any given time is complete with Hobbs & Shaw. This ninth installment and first spin-off of Universal’s insanely lucrative franchise bears virtually no resemblance to the 2001 film that started it all, aside from a handful of clever nods and callbacks. But in a lot of ways, it’s better for it.When Fast Five breathed fresh life into the series in 2011, it was Dwayne Johnson, as Luke Hobbs, who became the symbol of that creative resurgence, escalating the racing and smaller crime plots by hiring the main heroes to pull off high-profile heists for the government. Johnson hasn’t left the franchise since, bringing the hulking amount of energy and charisma that makes him one of Hollywood’s most consistently entertaining stars to each entry he’s been in. Thankfully, Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, the electric villain of Furious 7, hasn’t left either.
Hobbs & Shaw is mercifully quick in bringing its two leads together. After an opening scene that introduces Idris Elba as the film’s cyborg villain Brixton Lore, as well as Shaw’s utterly badass MI6 sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), we briefly catch up with the titular heroes in their personal lives before they get the same call to action. Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce’s script employs the old “virus that’ll wipe out the world” ploy that every high-octane espionage series has before. For Hobbs, it’s another job to save the world, but for Shaw, it’s a personal quest to save his estranged sister.
Not that she needs much saving. The “Shaw” in the title might as well be plural because Hattie does nearly as much butt-kicking as her two male counterparts throughout. And not for nothing, Kirby transfers the charmingly enigmatic energy she brought to last summer’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout right into this movie, and with a stronger leading role. Better yet, with Johnson, Statham, and Elba as highly bankable action stars, she’s also the only main cast member with something to prove here. Boy does she succeed. Kirby really acts her way through her action scenes (much like the ever-expressive Tom Cruise does as Ethan Hunt), adding gravitas to every punch and kick more than the men she shares the screen with. And when she’s not fighting, she’s got the attitude and charisma to carry the film through its barely strung together plot. Give this woman an action vehicle all of her own. Like, tomorrow.
Having the titular duo essentially becomes a trio is an unexpected pleasure for sure, but those who came to watch Johnson and Statham face bad guys and each other will certainly leave satisfied. The Fast & the Furious flicks have gotten lighter and funnier as they’ve gone along, but Hobbs & Shaw might be the first that could properly be labeled an action-comedy. A lot of what these two do on screen together is funny, even if most of the jokes boil down to who can flex their muscles harder and who purportedly has bigger privates.
These two stars are largely able to sell the tired comedic material they’re given on chemistry and screen presence alone. You can almost feel them competing to outdo each other on set, and in a few cases, director David Leitch appears to let them lob improvised insults at each other with intense camera close-ups to grab every small facial aggression. It only sort of works, as, well, Johnson and Statham are simply better at in-the-moment quips and physical comedy. In these insult standoffs, of which there are about three, the film feels self-congratulatory in succeeding to get these two megastars together, and thus it becomes a little off-putting. Big as they are, they don’t hold a candle to, say, what Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista pull off in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.
Still, the action largely works. Following Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, Leitch again proves proficient in shooting close-quarters combat here. All the hand-to-hand scenes excel where some of the bigger set pieces come off as Michael Bay-lite, with explosions and CGI swirling around each other in a sometimes incomprehensible storm.
A bigger problem, however, is the film’s length. At two hours and fifteen minutes, Hobbs & Shaw can’t keep up the charm of its stars between the big action sequences. The story drags, and it doesn’t help that just when it feels like it’s about to end, the script steps back and sets up another half hour of plot. The film practically has two third acts, and Elba’s turn as self-proclaimed “Black Superman” is neither engaging nor deep enough to sustain legitimate tension during either of them. Brixton Lore is a one-note villain for which Elba is merely present to add some dramatic pomp and frills in place of an actual personality.
Still, the franchise’s central ethos remain intact. With Shaw fighting to keep his family together (Helen Mirren reprises her role as its criminal matriarch for a few scenes), it’s Hobbs who has to learn the value of his own roots in the end, with a visit to Samoa for the final battle that highlights a culture not often seen on film. It feels a little forced in, but it’s at least fun to see how the first Fast spin-off finds a way to run the same temperature on the series’ core family values (laughably hokey as they may be).