Post updated September 13th, 2019 at 03:26 pm
When The Rock singlehandedly stopped a missile with his bare hands in The Fate of the Furious, I finally tapped out. I’ve always been a fan of the Fast & Furious franchise — not in the same vein as I am with Star Wars, Game of Thrones or Harry Potter of course, but a fan nonetheless. I’ve always enjoyed the diverse and distinct cast of characters with their loudmouths and louder personalities. I’ve also unapologetically always been a fan of the whole “family” angle they keep bringing up over and over again. But even I had to concede that the creatively dwindling franchise should have been put to bed after the messy but wonderfully resolved Furious 7 (the closing Paul Walker tribute still brings heavy tears to my eyes to this day). I digress.
But when it was announced that David ‘Bloody’ Leitch was set to helm the franchise’s first spinoff, Hobbs & Shaw, my excitement level started to surge. Is it too early to call David Leitch — John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 — one of the great action-directors, if not of all time, at least of this generation? The man has a proclivity for crafting action sequences that are creatively staged and sleekly shot. Just go and watch Atomic Blonde, if not for its story (which is actually pretty interesting), just for the unbelievably insane 7-minute one-take staircase fight scene that will leave action junkies intoxicated for two weeks straight. And it’s because of Leitch that Hobbs & Shaw is such an enjoyable movie right from its opening to its closing credits.
Fast & Furious isn’t new to bombastic, over the top action sequences. We’ve seen cars drift in between and underneath large trucks, cars on the 45th floor fly from one Ethihad Tower into another, cars being driven out of aeroplanes and a submarine — yes, SUBMARINE — chase sequence. Every now and then, we’ll get brawls between muscular bald men. But never has the action sequences been orchestrated with such clarity and finesse like it is in Hobbs & Shaw.
Here, David Leitch tones down the over the top stuff (though there is plenty of that too — at one point, The Rock pulls a chopper with his bare hand, showcasing his enormous guns in the process like Captain America in Civil War) and dials up the hand-to-hand fights, which I love. All of it is wonderfully choreographed with each character given the space to showcase a different fighting style — Luke Hobbs fights like Hulk, Deckard Shaw like Captain America and Vanessa Kirby’s Hattie like Black Widow (I use these references because I have absolutely no knowledge of the various martial arts styles). And because Leitch is behind the camera (along with his frequent cinematographer Jonathan Sela), we get to see all these sequences clearly, with only a fleeting amount of shaky cam and no irritating quick cuts.
There is also the cast that is utterly enjoyable to spend time with, despite embodying one-dimensional characters. The Rock and Jason Statham are just brought on to do their Rock and Statham thing. They drop one-liners (I have listened to The Rock say he’s gonna shove something up someone’s ass for the past 20 years and I will gladly continue listening to him say that for another 20), they break each others’ balls before proceeding to break their enemies’ teeth. Some of the jokes don’t land, but most of it got big laughs from me (especially the stuff involving the cameos, which I will not spoil). Look, all of it is as stinky as the finest blue cheese from a Gordon Ramsey restaurant, but isn’t that why we go to these movies anyway?
Who would’ve thought, though, that the standout in a movie with The Rock, Jason Statham and the sexiest man on the planet, Idris Elba would be Vanessa Kirby? I guess if you follow The Crown, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me right now. I don’t blame you. But I’ve only seen Kirby in smaller movies like the Polish Mr. Jones (in which she displays her range as a strong dramatic performer) or in smaller roles like in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Here, I was captivated from start to finish, not just because she’s scorching like the surface of the sun, but because she emits an energy that is rare and irreplicable.
She’s charming, charismatic, possesses excellent comedic timing and frankly steals the show from The Rock and Statham. Observe her in scenes where she’s not necessarily acting but REacting, like the face she makes when Deckard Shaw makes out with an old flame. There’s also a fiery intensity to her during the action sequences that makes them such a delight to watch. People who are unfamiliar with her work in The Crown are in for a treat. Kirby is a bonafide star!
And yet, the movie feels a little uninspiring and slightly weak. The problem is, while David Leitch has helmed arguably the most polished Fast & Furious film to date, Chris Morgan’s screenplay is stick thin. Hobbs & Shaw lacks conflict that gradually escalates. Idris Elba plays Brixton, a biomechanically enhanced human tasked by **mysterious voice** to acquire a virus that could destroy the world. Hobbs and the Shaw siblings have to stop him. But let’s set aside the highly uninteresting premise and focus on the way the story is told and the characters are propelled forward.
The stakes don’t feel personal, despite the attempts at trying to make it so. The action blocks, while fun, are seriously lacking in emotional weight. I watched a bunch of people punch each other in their faces over and over again, but not once was at the edge of my seat rooting for the good guys or against the bad guy. There isn’t a cloud of dread constantly hovering over each scene, growing darker as we drift towards the climax. There isn’t a proverbial noose that tightens with each passing second.
Some of it is because the most interesting aspect of Idris Elba’s character is that it’s being played by Idris Elba. But not even Elba’s profoundly regal voice can save this character from being an empty shell with a famous face. He shows up, says some unmemorable lines, delivers some exposition and then there’s a fight scene. We don’t get a sense of who he is as a person. I guess the counter-argument to that would be to ask me to name one great villain in the Fast & Furious franchise. You win.
But the franchise, for the most part, always had interesting heroes (I’m not just talking about the actors but the characters) dealing with some sort of interesting conflict. We can trace this back all the way to the first movie where undercover cop Brian (Paul Walker) infiltrates the Toretto family. The interesting throughline of the movie was (a) when and how will Dominic and gang figure out that Brian’s only pretending to be their friend? and (b) when and how will Brian find out that he’s no longer pretending to be their friend?
The worst of the franchise Tokyo Drift was about a small town dude with an attitude problem being an outsider in a big city. The fourth was about Brian reuniting with the Toretto family. The fifth introduced The Rock as a straight cop and by extension one of the antagonists of the film. Pitting Luke Hobbs — who in-story is said to be the only one capable of taking down Dominic Toretto, and who on a meta-level is the upgraded version of Vin Diesel — against the Toretto family was a stroke of genius that elevated the franchise to the next level.
Ever since the fifth movie, though, these characters have slowly evolved into superheroes and now into invincible Gods among men. Furious 7 only works on an emotional level because of the real-life passing of Paul Walker and The Fate of the Furious was mostly emotionally barren. As far as emotional weight goes, Hobbs & Shaw is as dry as the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road. It doesn’t help that Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw just can’t stop cracking jokes, even if they’re right smack in the middle of a life and death situation. If they don’t care that they’re in danger, why should we? Even Captain America exhibits physical and mental vulnerabilities.
If my past few paragraphs have made it seem like I’m hating on the movie, I apologise. I really did have a wonderful time at the cinema with a big fat smile on my face from start to finish. It’s one of the most fun I had in theatres this summer. But as with any big ‘event’ movie that I watch, when the surface level fun, one-liners and bombast have slowly faded out of my mind, what I’m usually left with are fascinating characters and raw emotion. In the case of Hobbs & Shaw, I’ll be left with nothing.