‘Hobbs & Shaw’ moderately improves on a franchise that needed extreme improvements

The doubling never really gets old. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

4/10 I walked into Hobbs & Shaw determined to enjoy it, because I love the personnel involved and it’s a great idea for a spinoff. I wanted to see a Fast/Furious movie that felt fresh again. But unfortunately, this movie is over-produced to the point that it isn’t what I wanted it to be anymore, and I cannot in good conscience recommend it.

In Fast & Furious presents: Hobbs & Shaw, MI6 agent Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby) injects herself with a deadly virus to keep it away from Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a biomechanically enhanced black ops agent who fancies himself as the next phase of human evolution and, as an extension of that, wants to kill everyone. The CIA calls in Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, who also produces), known as one of the best manhunters in the world, and Hattie Shaw’s brother, Deckard (Jason Statham, who also produces) for his personal connection to both his sister and Lore. The problem is Hobbs and Deckard Shaw hate each other.

Hobbs & Shaw is directed by David Leitch, who is coming off of Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde. Hobbs & Shaw is at its best when it needs to be “from the guy who directed Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde,” but as the movie wears on, it becomes the kind of vehicular madness that needs to be “from the guy who directed Mad Max: Fury Road,” and that’s where it runs into some problems.

The whole idea for this spinoff came from Johnson’s weird public feud with Vin Diesel and Statham’s chemistry, discovered in the latest Fast/Furious movies. As with Stuber a few weeks ago, the genuine animosity between the leads adds a great deal to what is fundamentally a buddy movie, a format that’s become incredibly stale in recent years.

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Hobbs & Shaw is at its best in its opening scenes. After introducing the menacing but beleaguered Lore and the almost feral Hattie Shaw, we get a wonderful red oni/blue oni scene to introduce our title characters. The extended split-screen sequence walks viewers through their morning routines and clashing operational styles in a way that emphasizes both their similarities and their differences all in the same moments. Many of the movie’s strongest points come back to these clashing dynamics, including their frequently intercut fight scenes.

The fight scenes are shot wonderfully, but this is where the overproduction starts to come into play. Everything is shot in wide and seems to have been actually performed, as you would expect from two stars who have done their own stunts at various points in their careers, but it gets more difficult to appreciate with the rapid editing that’s become characteristic of movies that are trying to hide bad stuntwork. The editing technique was brought into fashion in the mid ‘00s, and many films employ it without a solid reason why, to their own detriment. Hobbs & Shaw falls into this trap.

I think Paul kind of ruined it for me by sending me this Wall Street Journal article about how these two grown-ass men, ages 47 and 52 respectively, insist on being portrayed as these invincible macho badasses straight out of an ‘80s themed Dr. Pepper commercial. You can see it everywhere in Hobbs & Shaw once you’re aware of it, particularly in pouty “no one tells me what to do” lines, and I can no longer read it as self-abasement of a woefully dated genre.

Slowly, fight scenes give way to the kind of physics-defying car action this series is known for, and as the stunts go off the rails, so does the movie. Hobbs & Shaw has some major lighting problems, and once things start exploding and crashing into each other, they turn into the same rear-screen projection problems we’re used to seeing, but a bigger problem for me is the lack of humanity in these set pieces.

2011’s Fast Five – Johnson’s first role in the franchise – is certainly the turning point, the moment when Fast/Furious stopped being about Los Angeles street rats who stole Playstations and drank Coronas and started being about international professional criminals who played out wild Hot Wheels fantasies and drank Coronas, and it’s the moment where the series became a major international player, with the worldwide take leaping from $363.2 million to $626.1 million from the fourth entry to the fifth. Many fans also point to the (in)famous bank vault scene as the moment the franchise jumped the shark, but look again-

There’s still a real sense of danger in the scene, as if actual human beings are doing this. Toretto and O’Connor behave as if their lives are genuinely in jeopardy and as if they haven’t done this before. They have to communicate to perform maneuvers, which is shown as a hazardous task. Real people going about their daily lives are terrorized. Collateral damage is a major focus of the sequence.

People are behaving as if these actions have consequences.

Fast-forward to now, or to many moments of intervening entries, and Hobbs is leaping out of a skyscraper without a second thought. His Samoan family has several seemingly purpose-built vehicles at the ready for the big finale. The human element is long gone from the action and car chase scenes – explicitly, in Lore’s case.

That’s where these movies stop being fun. The cast may be spectacular and the stunts may be extreme, but if the spectacular cast isn’t reacting to them as if they’re extreme, I’m not going to either.

With only one day left before Hattie Shaw is consumed by the killer virus, the characters fly from Moscow to Samoa. I looked it up, and to my delight, that flight takes about a day and a half.

Hobbs & Shaw also has several noticeable and noticeably uncomfortable political elements. The organization behind Lore, which is left deliberately mysterious to be explored in sequels – did I mention this was a bit over-produced? – somehow controls the news media, which is a whole can of worms. Lore and his backers use the language of science and evolution to justify mass killing, which feels like a lazy appeal to a less educated audience. These sorts of hot-button words and topics, used without any understanding or care for their meaning, to build up a paper-thin villain is common, and commonly problematic, for the lazier action movies of the past decade.  Visiting American Samoa for one of the first and certainly the most prominent times in cinematic history is highly political in its own way.

That’s one way Hobbs & Shaw does refresh the Fast/Furious franchise, with its much more genuine focus on family, which goes from an abstract concept growled by Vin Diesel to a motivation that drives the plot in a meaningful way. Deckard Shaw is driven by loyalty to his mother and sister, and Hobbs has his own arc reconnecting with his family on Samoa, something that was important to Johnson behind the scenes.

So I guess Hobbs & Shaw really is a measurable improvement on the average Fast/Furious movie, with a better and smaller cast, generally better action, more and better conflicts and more genuine themeing. It’s still not great.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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