Two ampersands is too many—or maybe one feels the obligation of these films too heavily anymore. During the climactic confrontation of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), while climbing onto the back of an epic tow truck driven by begrudging buddy Decker Shaw (Jason Statham), pauses to put his shirt back on. It makes no difference whether he wears a shirt or not; his typical choice for clothing is “sprayed on,” as Decker puts it. The Rock, and therefore Hobbs, cannot hide their immensity, and so they (he) embrace(s) it, as suitably inhuman as the F&F universe demands he be. So why the shirt, when it’s about as functional as a fig leaf and twice as thin? Why isn’t he wearing the “state-of-the-art” bulletproof jacket he copped from conveniently, inhumanly attractive Madame M (Eiza Gonzalez)? Considering director David Leitch’s previous two films—Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2—the weird, blink-or-you-miss-it gesture of the Rock putting his shirt back on when the situation hardly calls for it could be read as a meta-commentary on action movie ubermensch tropes requiring that insanely jacked dudes be as shirtless as possible, instead choosing to keep our heroes chaste and sexless. That’s probably not the case, not only because the Rock’s spent the past 15 minutes shirtless, but because, whether he’s wearing a shirt or not, the Rock is always shirtless.
As is the case with Atomic Blonde, Leitch seems committed again to developing an homage to a certain era of genre filmmaking, then desensitizing the audience to whatever well-crafted style it’s mimicking. With Hobbs & Shaw, our duo follows in the footsteps of Riggs & Murtaugh, Cates & Hammond, Tango & Cash, Turner & Hooch—taking ’80s buddy cop action movies and focus-grouping them down to the nub. Bland backpack rap blares over one montage after another while comic book panels and subtitles slide past the screen as unpleasantly as Mel Gibson’s mullet. A woman’s butt is discriminately filmed by regular Leitch cinematographer Jonathan Sela, luxuriating in its closeness. We’re not that woke, folks! After all, the Fast & Furious movies are about two things: family, and butts.
“Family” of course gets the drinking game mention, as our plot centers around Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 agent framed for the murder of her team and for absconding with a super-virus she was originally sent to procure and protect. Instead, ambushed by actual ubermensch Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), Hattie injects the virus into her hand, then just barely escapes Lore’s grasp. Turns out, Lore has various cyber-genetic enhancements granted him by shadowy tech megacorporation Etheon, literally reborn from a previous life in which he worked with Shaw, who—yaddah yaddah yaddah—apparently “had” to shoot him in the head. With a gun. On the run, Hattie crosses paths with her estranged brother and potential love interest Hobbs, the two of them partnered up by the CIA and MI6, orchestrated into a meet-cute by cameo agents Lock (Ryan Reynolds) and Loeb (Rob Delaney), two Leitch pitch-hitters who are, respectively, very not funny and only very funny because he’s able to maintain a strange atonal distance from all the blockbuster gobbledygook expositionally washing up all around him. Hobbs and Shaw, who found some common ground in The Fate of the Furious, of course can’t stand each other at first, but inevitably grow to be “brothers,” despite Shaw killing Han (Sung Kang) (and a lot of other people) in previous Fast & Furious entries. Screenwriter Chris Morgan makes it clear that future Hobbs & Shaw shoot-em-ups will further address the “amends” Shaw needs to make for his homicidal past—but in the meantime: Family! Hobbs and Shaw must put aside their differences to find a way to extract the virus from Hattie and defeat the maniacal Lore, an adventure which draws the Shaw siblings closer and brings Hobbs back to his native Samoa to reunite with a mother (Lori Pelenise Tuisano) and brothers he long ago left behind.
As the F&F universe further spins out and off into wider radii, Hobbs & Shaw is the first sign that a Fast & Furious movie isn’t as well-defined as we may have hoped. Even the film’s many lavish set pieces—a chase down the side of a skyscraper that morphs into a car vs. motorcycle spree through the streets of London; a battle royale in the Etheon facility; the aforementioned all-out brawl in the Hobbs family’s land that culminates in a helicopter sparring with a human centipede of tow trucks, each vehicle crapping nitrous gas into the grill of the tow truck behind it—fade into an over-CGI’d melange of exceptional people doing exceptional things, reducing all stakes to a motivation for Shaw to make fun of how Hobbs is a graceless behemoth, or for Hobbs to make fun of how Shaw is a tiny weak old man with stubby stupid legs. Leitch, who’s proven himself a precise action filmmaker with his work on John Wick and with a few bravura scenes in Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, can’t quite anchor his kinetic choreography here, never losing any sense of geography so much as admitting his geography doesn’t matter, guys just sort of flailing everywhere in the melee of Hobbs and Shaw’s prowess while the camera always feels just shy of being in the right place at the right time. More and more, Leitch embraces the idea of a sweet action scene over the visceral execution of it.
If Hobbs & Shaw is any indication, a Fast & Furious film is just a massive blockbuster spectacle devoted to ever-incomprehensible superhuman endeavors winnowed down to the most socially acceptable baseline, like a neoliberal hell of capitalistic excess leavened by that internet comic strip meme where the one guy clasps the lips of the other guy and insists you just let him enjoy things. Never forget that Dwayne Johnson wants to be friends with Mohammad Bin Salman. The Rock does not need shirts, and yet he insists on putting them back on.
The shirt is on, the shirt is off; the glass is half-empty, the glass is half-full. The success of Hobbs & Shaw is one purely based on perspective—whether this is what you’ve wanted the Fast & Furious to be all along; whether this is your entry into the F&F franchise; whether one seeks the breathless escape of a well-timed and well-made superhero movie in a cinema-scape saturated with superhero movies, or whether we yearn for better choices during a moviegoing time in which we have plenty of better choices. Whether we know that the best Fast & Furious films are blessed with boundless imagination, with automobiles performing feats of which we’ve only dreamed, with cinematic dynasties built on blissfully shitting into the bed of the laws of physics. For some, Hobbs & Shaw is more wish fulfillment. For others, it is a manifestation of shitting the bed until there is no longer any bed and one must sleep on a pile of one’s shit. Kevin Hart spends half of his screen time on the toilet.
Undeniably, every cast member coasts by on A-list charm, especially Idris Elba, who’s able to gum some compelling menace from the empty shell of a villain he’s given. Likewise, Vanessa Kirby is an effortless star to capture and hone for a movie like this, but Hattie Shaw is as functional as Mission: Impossible’s Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson): pretty, badass, competent, indistinguishable. That Kirby is also in Fallout, connected to Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise’s franchise cosmos, makes for easy arrows to draw, from Hobbs & Shaw to Mission: Impossible, and then to similarly standard-bearing contemporary action movies, like the aforementioned John Wick. But Fallout’s helicopter fight scene puts Hobbs & Shaw’s 13-year-old’s wet dream of a helicopter fight to shame, because we can feel that Tom Cruise is doing this, but mostly because McQuarrie’s filmmaking balances the immediacy of somehow knowing that Tom Cruise is doing this with the illusion of knowing that, no way, Tom Cruise can’t possibly be doing this.
In Hobbs & Shaw, we know exactly what Hobbs and Shaw can do, and we let them do it, and the movie washes over us like the warm output of a dying box fan on a sweltering summer day. It can be exactly what you need it to be—and with a budget of $200M it needs to be a massive success—but compared to the eight films preceding it, the mindlessness of Hobbs & Shaw isn’t a sign of humble poptimist genius, just of something less than what it could have been.
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, Rob Delaney, Kevin Hart, Eiza Gonzalez
Release Date: August 2, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.