Dir: David Leitch
Apart from the Marvel and Star Wars Universes, the Fast & Furious franchise is probably - against the odds given its origins as a fairly low rent Point Break ripoff - the biggest thing in movies at the moment. Since Dwayne Johnson joined the series in Fast Five it has taken ever more extreme turns out of the realm of credibility, which seem to reach their zenith in this spinoff film teaming Johnson’s Secret Service agent Luke Hobbs with Jason Statham’s Furious 7 villain, now a spy and basically a good guy (I think) Deckard Shaw.
The storyline is so ridiculous it almost approaches parody. Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) is on a team trying to get back a stolen virus. When her team is murdered she injects herself with the virus so that ‘upgraded’ super soldier Brixton (Idris Elba) can’t steal it, but he frames her for the murders. Their respective bosses call in Hobbs and Shaw, who will have to work together first to find Hattie and then to stop Brixton.
Nobody is going in to Hobbs & Shaw blind. Nobody is asking for a cerebral examination of the nature of man and conflict from this film. Big, loud, and silly is the brand and it’s what director David Leitch (John Wick, Deadpool 2) and the cast and crew provide. It's a prime example, for good and ill, of delivering exactly what it promises. At 136 minutes it is undoubtedly overlong, but there’s little stopping for breath between the fights and the large scale action scenes.
The car stunts that defined the franchise are present and correct, though less emphasised than usual, with much of the action being more combat focused. This is something Leitch does well, with hard hitting choreography, showing the actors doing a decent amount of their own fight work, and generally keeping the camerawork and editing intelligible so that we feel the impact of the blows. Statham and Johnson are old hands at this stuff, and they each get a fantastic (and contractually guaranteed) showcase, but just as she did in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Vanessa Kirby impresses in the action heroine stakes, clearly having trained hard and done much of her own fighting, she provides a more agile counterpoint to the blunt force trauma of the two shaven-headed hulks she’s put in between. Her first fight with Johnson is about as low key as this film ever gets and it’s one of the best sequences, with some of the smoothest choreography in the movie. The vehicle stunts are also spectacular, and excitingly shot, but they are clearly much more CG augmented than the fights, so it’s tough to know who to credit for what. It’s worth noting that stunt departments are some of the most under-credited people in the film industry and this film as much as any makes a fine argument for ending that, possibly with a couple of Oscar categories (I’d suggest Best Stunt Coordination and Best Stunt Performance).
When Hobbs & Shaw does slow down it’s on shakier ground. Dwayne Johnson exudes charisma, he’s a true movie star and if he has a signature role, this is it. From an acting standpoint, little is asked of him but his presence, movie star quality and willingness to poke fun at himself paper over that fact. I’m less of a fan of Jason Statham, but there’s no denying that he’s in his element here, having just as much fun as Johnson is chewing his way through the escalating series of scenes of tough guy one upmanship that passes for a screenplay in between the punching and the driving. As much fun as these two are having, their endless banter does become wearing. It’s very one note and something we’ve seen done before with more wit and character. That’s not to say that none of the gags work, just that every scene built around them could be cut by a third to a half of its running time and the film would be tighter and funnier. Adding to this feeling that some of the film’s comedy could easily be cut are two (over)extended cameos which are both funny for a minute or two and then become increasingly tiresome.
All this said, most of the performances are genuinely good, within the confines of the writing. Idris Elba’s performance is entirely summed up by the glee with which he says the much trailered line “I’m Black Superman”. As with everything in this film, it’s not deep, but Elba delivers the goods both as a villainous presence and as a credibly formidable opponent, even before we know he’s a super soldier. It’s also worth noting a barely recognisable Cliff Curtis, doing a good job as Hobbs’ estranged brother and Eddie Marsan and Helen Mirren, both chewing all the scenery they can as, respectively, a Russian scientist and Shaw’s mother. As with the action though, it’s Vanessa Kirby who stands out. Again there’s the sense that she is the performer the furthest out of her comfort zone. She works well with her co-stars, forging a nice relationship with Johnson that irritates Statham amusingly, and she makes the one real emotional beat play, lifting Johnson’s performance into the bargain. It is hilarious seeing Kirby, 20 years younger than Statham, cast as a sister who flashbacks suggest is about three years his junior. Then again, this is a film about a super soldier trying to steal a programmable virus, so maybe that's not the biggest credibility gap. On the whole, Kirby’s work here is a huge billboard that says ‘Give me my own action franchise’. I’d watch it.
Hobbs & Shaw folds in some of the Fast franchise’s obsession with family, with the final act taking place in Samoa, continuing a theme that Johnson seems to try to weave into as many of his films as possible of acknowledging and celebrating his heritage. It works well, with the family stuff feeling more like a theme and less like a repeated catchphrase this time, and it provides a different environment with new implications for the action set pieces. I’m not the biggest fan of the Fast & Furious movies, but I enjoyed this as much as or more than the best of them (Fast Five). Hobbs & Shaw isn’t brain food, and there are a couple of ingredients that I might have used less of, but if you’re going for junk food it’s a tasty and filling meal.