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I’m what you might call a champagne problem.

Movie

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
(2019)

 

The idea of teaming the two most engaging characters from recent Fast & Furious movies for a spin-off seems like a no-brainer for making something better than Fast & Furious at its best (somewhere around 6 & 7), but there’s a flaw to this thinking (even if the actual genesis of the movie weren’t Dwayne Johnson swearing off being on the same set as Vin again), The key to F&F succeeding is the ensemble element, and the variety of the pick ’n’ mix of characters. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – I can’t help thinking the over-announced title itself stresses an intrinsic lack of confidence somewhere at Universal – duly provides too much of a good thing, ensuring none of the various talents employed are fully on top of their game.

In particular, Shaw was the highlight of the lacklustre Fast & Furious 8 (a lot of that being down to F Gary Gray’s largely leaden direction), off doing his own thing on a plane saving a baby. And Hobbs, by virtue of Johnson’s limited availability in Fast & Furious 7, was laid up in bed, coming on for maximum impact with a very big gun at the climax. That’s kind of how these things need to work, giving you enough juggling balls to make the overlong action spectacle continuously interesting; there’s always something fairly fresh or ludicrous – or Ludacris – just around the corner if part of it doesn’t work for you.

Series regular writer Chris Morgan, teaming with Drew Pearce, knows that, to the extent that he drafts in an uncredited Ryan Reynolds (as Hobbs’ hyper-camp CIA buddy Locke) and an uncredited Kevin Hart (as a wannabe spy air marshal) at judicious moments to provide yuks (Reynolds particularly, a tornado of improv, is simultaneously hilarious and exhausting, extending into the end credits where he announced he has stabbed a guy with a brick). But it’s not enough to make the banter between the antagonistic buddies other than fitfully amusing.

A lot of their quipping smacks of trying too hard, with insults that fall flat and attempts to make Hobbs’ snark as effective as Shaw’s (such are the requirements of star power). Whatever Johnson’s appeal as a said star, it’s no more based on his being great with delivering witticisms than it is being a romantic lead (as per his former co-star Diesel, his love interest subplot – with Vanessa Kirby – falls flat). As such, he’s much better as a riled straight man to Statham’s obnoxious blunt-force-trauma insult parade. Statham generally gets the better moments (using a lift while Hobbs jumps off a building, “Mike Oxsmall”), but the aforementioned need for parity (Hobbs later gets mirror paybacks of each) cumulatively makes them both slightly irritating.

Kirby’s fine as Shaw’s sister Hattie (although, we’re supposed to believe there’s only a few years between them, rather than the actual two decades Statham has on her). Helen Mirren’s really great as his incarcerated mum (she’s as funny as the expressly funny Reynolds and Hart, funnier even, and hugely likeable with it), and Eddie Marsan gets a very Eddie Marsan turn as a Russian scientist.

Idris Elba, however, continues his unfailing run of proving an ill fit for Hollywood, as the one-note, cybernetically enhanced villain Brixton. His tediously hyperbolic role mirrors the plot as a whole, revolving around elements loosely lifted from the conspirasphere (the intent to hook everyone up to a technological future – “Brother you may believe in machines, but we believe in people” – by way of a Georgia Guidestones-esque culling of the population). This also takes in the ease of putting out fake news (Hobbs and Shaw are turned into fugitives at the click of a headline). That there’s a ticking-clock element – Hattie has injected herself with a virus intended to wipe out most of the Earth’s populace, and they have to get it out of her – ought to add a sense of urgency, but too much of the movie is victim to the kind of stodgy pacelessness that comes with an overabundance of fast-edited spectacle at the expense of engaging action.*

Which is particularly disappointing, this coming from David Leitch in his current gun-for-hire phase. Opinions vary on which of the John Wick men is more talented, Leitch or Chad Stahelski, but for my money, Atomic Blonde has some of the best action choreography in any movie full stop. Leitch also did a decent job with Deadpool 2, but he’s on seriously diminishing returns here, such that the effect is frequently one of feeling any interchangeable second unit/effects team could have come up with similar.

Worst afflicted is the Ukraine sequence, with a whole lot of listless driving around some prime industrial wasteland. There are moments – Shaw fighting his way down a corridor while Hobbs has an effortless passage down his – that are exactly what you want from this movie. But too often, it descends into banal overkill and becomes really quite boring.

Which includes the jaunt to Samoa, at a point where the movie should long ago have ended. At least, until Stahelski and his stunt team pull off a genuinely impressive, eye-popping multi-car-attached-to-helicopter set piece (I emphasise this, because I’d practically given up on the picture by this point). There’s also the inevitable “It’s all about family” stuff (which has to be equally Hobbs and Shaw, and as noted above with the humour, the Shaw stuff is always superior, with a thankless role for Cliff Curtis as Hobbs’ brother). The other most resonant element of this section are the actual elements, whereby the action ranges from night to broad daylight to a deluge in the space of one extended sequence. That Samoan weather is a bitch.

Of course, there’s a set up for a sequel, which at current reckoning will depend on how Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw goes down in China, the biggest market for the series (the last two each made nearly $400m there; if this makes more than half that, it may be okay, but it will still be seriously lagging the worldwide for the main event). I think, if they’re going to be a viable spinoff, they really need to take a leaf out of their progenitor’s “variety” book, which means more of those minor roles – Mirren, Hart, Reynolds – and framing the leads closer to Captain Jack than wannabe Vins.

*Addendum 07/08/22: I’d entirely forgotten this. Let’s hear it for predictive programming.

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