Eighteen years ago, an unheralded little Universal release called The Fast and the Furious climaxed with two drag racers played by the little-known Vin Diesel and Paul Walker cranking up their engines and macho to see who might make it across some Los Angeles train tracks before an approaching engine did. This summer we’ve got the franchise’s latest outsized sprig, in which the grand finale features a battle royal involving the villainous Idris Elba in a jumbo helicopter chained to a hefty truck bearing Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham along the coast of Samoa.
In the curiously titled Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, which is being positioned as a franchise offshoot, the faces, scale and cost ($200 million) have changed, but not the elemental appeal of the series’ stress on speed, nerve, spectacular stunts and devil-may-care confidence among its muscle-bound main characters.
Officially, this gigantic, sometimes rollicking and enjoyably absurd venture is not an actual Fast and Furious entry but something of a parallel event; Fast & Furious 9 with Diesel, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez and other familiar faces, but without Johnson or Statham, will continue the main series’ narrative next May. But the family ties are visible everywhere, even when the filmmakers, if not the actors, make you suspect they’d actually like to be making a Mission: Impossible installment.
Different things can happen to a franchise as it ages, and not all that many of them last as long as this one has. Without rejuvenation, they can get tired, repetitive, cobwebby and/or outdated. Not only have these traps been avoided here, but the film gets giddy and goofy in spots and always wears its fundamental absurdity with good humor.
Following its long arc, the franchise has traveled from credible working-class grit to the self-consciously absurd and costs be damned, but with the saving grace of self-deprecating humor. The pic springs right out of the gate as it contrasts, via split-screen, the just-out-of-bed routines of Johnson’s security services expert Luke Hobbs and Statham’s former military-op-gone-rogue Deckard Shaw. With Arnold Schwarzenegger’s prime well behind him, no men in film today can fairly compete with Johnson for top muscle-man honors, even as a chiseled physique has become a virtual requisite for stardom.
Screenwriters Chris Morgan, who remains on board for his seventh Fast installment, and Drew Pearce, who created the original story for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, have worked especially hard to load the script with fast-flying antagonistic banter between Johnson’s Yank, Hobbs, and Statham’s working-class Brit, Shaw. These guys don’t want to work together again, but the unreliable behavior of Shaw’s brilliant sister Hattie (the ever-terrific Vanessa Kirby), a rogue MI6 agent in possession of a world-endangering viral sample, and the frightening ambitions of the half-man, half-genetically enhanced anarchist Brixton Lorr (Elba) rather force the issue.
Anyone who has seen director (and former stuntman) David Leitch’s previous features, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, knows that he has a tendency to intricately detail his scenes. Indeed, here, perhaps even more than before, he loads them up with no end of touches, including obsessive behavior and — his saving grace — humor, to the point where one can sometimes lose track of what the scene is actually about. On that score, however, all you have to really remember is that Hattie’s virus sample must not fall into the hands of the relentless, burgeoning superman Lorr and that much of the action you see onscreen cannot come close to happening in real life.
Once you accept these basics, Hobbs & Shaw (there must once have been a British shop or food concern of this name) can be a great deal of fun much of the time. The two leads’ highly competitive shtick is more amusing than not — the insults fly hot and heavy — as are the outrageously adverse predicaments over which they invariably manage to gain an upper hand. Director Leitch figuratively winks at the audience and elbows it in the ribs as he has his characters break the laws of physics time and time again as they confront a thoroughly preposterous lineup of physical dilemmas one after another.
If genetic modulation is possible, then the human body’s potential goes far beyond what we’re accustomed to at present. The film accepts this state of affairs as an invitation for its characters to achieve a cartoon-like level of physical endurance, strength, dexterity, mutability and resistance to pain. Due to supplements body builders today can only dream of, not to mention man-made implants, Lorr’s physique is already well on its way toward being more robotic than human; “I am the future of mankind,” he brags to Shaw, and his relative, if not absolute, invincibility suggests nothing less.
Constantly on the move at a clip faster than James Bond, if perhaps a step slower than Ethan Hunt, Hobbs and Shaw eventually end up at a Chernobyl-like facility where Lorr asserts that his evolutionary change will take place. The resultant action is both conceptually insane and excitingly climactic, the only problem being that this isn’t the climax after all; there’s more, and lots of it, set on Hobbs’ native tropical island, where he hasn’t set foot in decades.
Even if this extra act provides a measure of humanity and life background to Johnson’s character, it actually makes for too much of a good thing, by perhaps 15 minutes or so. Leitch’s constantly felt impulse to amp up every scene and provide something more yields benefits on a moment-to-moment basis, but can also reach a point of diminishing returns in its totality.
Johnson and Statham deliver the expected goods in spades; Elba looks to relish playing a baddie (who doesn’t?); and bringing in an actress the caliber of Kirby to play the pivotal female lead classes up the joint by several notches. Rather less needed is the talent of Helen Mirren, who, as the imprisoned mother of the Shaw siblings, appears briefly at the beginning and only momentarily at the end. Eddie Marsan proves quite amusing as a Russian professor and technical expert.
The movie’s highly elaborate physical scenes and innumerable effects reflect the money said to have been spent, and they mostly pay off in action that’s both visceral and amusing. A couple of uncredited high-profile actors in cameos help spark the proceedings.
Production companies: Chris Morgan Productions/Seven Bucks Productions
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Cliff Curtis, Helen Mirren, Elza Gonzalez, Eddie Marsan, Elians Sua
Director: David Leitch
Screenwriters: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce, story by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson
Producers: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Chris Morgan,, Hiram Garcia
Executive producers: Dany Garcia, Kelly McCormick, Ethan Smith, Ainsley Davies, Steve Chasman
Director of photography: Jonathan Sela
Production designer: David Scheunemann
Costume designer: Sarah Evelyn
Editor: Christopher Rouse
Music: Tyler Bates
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncali, Lucy Bevan
Rated PG-13, 137 minutes