Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Remember when “The Fast and the Furious” franchise was about stealing cars? Me too.
In a move that won’t shock anyone, the folks at Universal are diving deep into their pockets and trying some expansive world building within their flagship automotive series. Except this time ditching Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and the rest of the furious crew and giving the spotlight to side characters Luke Hobbs (Dwyane Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) in David Leitch’s (“Deadpool 2”) shiny, but ultimately lackluster, spin-off “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (Say that five times fast).
The folks who made this film understand that Johnsn and Statham have an untapped chemistry, and their comedic “Odd Couple” like insults they toss around outshines the craftier action sequences. In fact, “Hobbs & Shaw” is built around their pranks and improvisational slugs. Staham for instance gets a lot of mileage out of Johnson’s hulking size and ego, and Johnson enjoys touting how small in stature Sataham is. There’s a few good punchlines in there, but not enough for “Hobbs & Shaw” to sustain itself.
It’s basically a buddy cop film set within the “Furious” universe (though there’s hardly any mention of past installments) yet the brute-force excitement that accompanied the sequence at the top of “Furious 7” between the two action bros never comes to fruition. Perhaps that was the first sign a spin-off was a bad idea.
“Fast & Furious” staple Chris Morgan as well as Drew Pearce seem to understand the film has lower, albeit, sillier stakes to deal with. The problem is neither of them can resist the urge to stop either of its leads from spouting one cornball line (“you just opened an ice can of whoop ass”) after the other. No question Leitch - who gave us the hyperkinetic “Atomic Blonde” in addition to “Deadpool 2” - stages his sequences with gusto and the car chases are handled with precision. Yet the film gets bogged down by a plot that is devoid of logic and sense, involving a extinction-level virus that Shaw’s sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has decided to inject in her bloodstream. You’d think that would affect her ability in snapping a few bad guys necks, but it doesn’t. I’d argue she’s more in shape than her male counterparts.
You can tell the key sell is between Johnson and Statham, and considering the former is one of the biggest box office draws on the globe, that makes sense. The film desperately wants to make the duo work, and even tosses in a romantic subplot involving Hattie and Hobbs much to the bane of Shaw’s existence. “Black Superman” himself Idris Elba plays the films (stay with me) bio-mechanically enhanced villain, who doesn’t care about deductive reasoning so much as he’s “The Bad Guy” and asks folks in the first ten minutes “Who can stop me?”
Cut to a refreshing split-screen opening credit sequence which shows our titular characters going about their day - waking up, eating, exercising, all with the same mannerisms and cadence. They’re a perfect match aren’t they?
Their tribulations take them across select international locations, including London, where the pair get into a high-speed chase with Elba’s indestructible baddie and his Transformers-like presentation gave me bad flashbacks to “G.I Joe: the Rise of Cobra.” Obviously, he needs the virus so he, along with his boss that goes unnamed - can reshape the world and destroy the weak, and make the strong, stronger. It’s the kind of threat where clueless characters say things like “We’ve never seen anything like this!”
Even the towering - and usually - terrific Elba can’t save “Hobbs & Shaw” from a saggy setup that leads to a climactic showdown in Soma between his nameless and faceless goons, and Hobb’s nameless and faceless Samoan family. And that’s the heart of what this franchise has always been gearing towards: Family.
And this film is no different - Shaw hasn’t seen his sister in ages, and Hobbs swore he’d never go back to the island he grew up on (despite his 9-year-old daughter trying to put together a family tree at school and having never met her grandmother) but Morgan and Pierce could care less about those relationships. Nothing changes if Hobbs and his big bro (Cliff Curtis) are on good speaking terms because the film would still assemble its fair share of big Dwayne Johnson look-a likes for the final showdown. If the situation demands it, no matter how absurd, you bet the filmmakers will side step and cut corners whenever feasible.
To be sure, “Hobbs & Shaw” hasn’t lost its humanity, but when you start tossing sci-fi elements into a ninth franchise entry, it’s the pure definition of “jumping the shark.” I read somewhere that the screenwriters aren’t ruling out taking these characters to space and let’s just hope that never happens. However, if more adventures with the “Hobbs & Shaw” bunch is right up your ally, worry not as the film beguiling lays the groundwork for future installments; and if the films uninspired star-studded cameos are any indication, we could be looking at the new brigade. Even though most of those inclusions seem like Dwayne Johnson just called up his pals and asked if they wanted to cash an easy paycheck.
As evidenced by the shameless cameos, the filmmakers are clearly short of ideas and their best mentality seems to be that introducing familiar faces will somehow lessen how recycled the picture is. Still, for someone who generally enjoys these films (I’ve liked the last three “Furious” pictures) - I can’t ignore the writing on the wall. This franchise is running out of gas. Quick.