The world is a scary and confusing place, but at least we have Dwayne Johnson looming over Jason Statham and describing their encounters as akin to “dragging my balls across shattered glass.” With “Hobbs & Shaw,” the “Fast and the Furious” franchise spins off two of its most outrageous action studs into a standalone buddy movie in which they resist every opportunity to buddy up. As special agents forced to team up against their will, the beefy Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and slippery Deckard Shaw (Statham) trade barbs with such virtuosity they outshine everything around them.
Overloaded with hit-or-miss action sequences, a half-baked supervillain, and paint-by-numbers plotting about a virus with the potential to destroy the world, “Hobbs & Shaw” often struggles to surmount the low bar of today’s blockbuster standards. But at the center of it, Johnson and Statham inhabit a higher plane, with such alluring chemistry as their hatred pulls them together it’s a wonder they don’t just get a room. Strip away the meandering exposition and “Hobbs & Show” operates like an old-school screwball comedy that just happens to revolve around two of the biggest action stars working today.
Despite an unnecessary 136-minute running time, “Hobbs & Shaw” dispenses with a trim prologue and gets right down to business. (It’s a welcome alternative to the busy ensemble events of the “Fast and Furious” movies, which these days have to spend upwards of an hour just introducing the main characters.) Nimble MI:6 agent Hattie (“Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol” breakout Vanessa Kirby, confident enough to anchor a spin-off of her own) barely survives a warehouse showdown with self-professed “bad guy” Brixton Lore (Idris Elba, whose tendency to wind up in thankless roles is an ongoing puzzle of current cinema). Brixton’s a rogue agent with superhuman powers provided by a mysterious agency, and wants to get his hands on a dangerous vial containing a world-threatening disease. In the heat of the moment, Hattie injects herself with the bug and speeds off.
It just so happens that Hattie is Deckard’s sister, so when the CIA wants to track her down, they decide to pair him with an objective partner. Hobbs and Shaw enter their movie with a glorious split-screen montage comparing their daily routines, establishing the contrast that will carry them through many punchlines (Hobbs drinks raw eggs and pumps iron; Shaw fries them and drinks a beer, etc.). This wry opener even compares their fighting styles in their own words — Hobbs’ “can of whoop-ass” versus Shaw’s “champagne problem” — and it’s such an appealing formula on its own terms one could imagine an entire movie, Brian De Palma-style, unfolding in dual frames for its entirety.
Well, no such luck. Director David Leitch (“Atomic Blonde”) and screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce drop the device as the pair wind up together for an assignment to bring Hattie into custody. Of course, Hobbs and Shaw have no interest in collaborating, but the story gives them no choice: Hattie’s locked up just long enough for all three to wind up in the same room when Brixton shows up and starts trouble, leading to a riveting skyscraper battle.
Well, it’s kind of riveting, kind of just bland: When “Hobbs & Shaw” gives its way over to speed, with Brixton engaged in acrobatic feats on his motorcycle while the pair dance around him, the movie sags into redundancy. But it’s an overwhelming, breathless sort of redundancy in which it’s just as easy to enjoy the ride as it is to shrug it off.
In any case, big stuff is at play: Our heroes eventually get framed and must go on the lam as the time ticks down to cure Hattie of her virus and save the world. As they zip from London to Moscow and finally Hobbs’ homeland of Samoa (more on that in a bit), the movie leaves as much room as possible for the real show — opportunities for Hobbs and Shaw to make fun of each other.
It’s actually Hattie who first puts Hobbs in his place, declaring “There is nothing subtle about you!”, and the rest of the movie uses that as an excuse to return to that point. Johnson has gone to bizarre extremes with “Southland Tales” (and, to some extent, “Pain and Gain”) but in this case, he is fully in tune with a kind of campy self-awareness steeped in a celebrity image that stems back to his WWE days. There’s his ludicrous description of sex (“I’m gonna let her climb this mountain!” he declares about a potential mate); there’s a gag involving his outrageous disguise and an obscene nickname; there’s even the opportunity for Dwayne Johnson to say, “I love your babushka.” (He’s also a really great dad to his young daughter, which is practically a PSA from The Rock about how even testosterone-fueled macho men need family values.)
Other actors come and go to dip into the fun: Kevin Hart nails his two scenes as a hilarious air marshal desperate to join their team; ditto Ryan Reynolds, as the dopey agent obsessed with Hobbs to an uncomfortable degree; and then there’s an incarcerated Helen Mirren, reprising her role as the matriarch of the Shaw family first revealed in “The Fate of the Furious,” whose fleeting appearance explains the Shaw siblings’ penchant for con jobs.
For the most part, the bulk of “Hobbs & Shaw” belongs to its leading men, as they careen toward one showdown after another, but even they can’t save it from growing tiresome with time. Once the movie arrives at a finale involving multiple cars jammed together and tied to a helicopter on the edge of a cliff, “Hobbs & Shaw” has been spinning its wheels for nearly an hour.
But at least the aforementioned car-helicopter-cliff sequence unfolds against a fresh backdrop: In a desperate maneuver to tap into the resources of his estranged family, Hobbs takes the group to Samoa, where a blend of island rituals and family bonding actually generates some glimmers of real emotion. For Hobbs (and presumably for Johnson, whose mother is Samoan), the homecoming represents an opportunity to expand the reach of a franchise that has always been culturally ahead of the curve with its diverse cast.
Notwithstanding Marvel’s unique achievements, American action movies may not be getting smarter, or even particularly innovative, when it comes to their biggest spectacles. “Hobbs & Shaw” doesn’t change that, but the Samoan climax smuggles a progressive representational agenda into slick blockbuster clothing, and at some level it feels like a call to arms. It’s certainly proof that even dumb movies can endeavor to enlighten the masses, and gels nicely with the broader message: If Hobbs and Shaw can learn to get along, there may be hope for all of us.
Universal Pictures releases “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” on Friday, August 2.