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Non-Review Review: Fast and Furious Presents – Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw works best when it delivers exactly what audiences expect from that title.

The breakout star of The Fate of the Furious was the chemistry between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson. Behind the scenes conflicts between Johnson and franchise headliner Vin Diesel had forced the production team to structure the eighth film in the franchise so Johnson and Diesel didn’t have to share the screen. This led to a number of endearingly absurd set pieces, such as a heart-to-heart appeal between the two men conducted across a street over the speaker systems of monster cars. It also meant that Johnson had to find a new screen partner, and Statham was the member of the ensemble who fit the bill.

I have to admit, there were many more explosions and fistfights than I expected for a historical biopic exploring the relationship between Thomas Hobbes and George Bernard Shaw.

It’s easy to over-intellectualise the chemistry between Johnson and Statham. There’s the obvious physical contrast; Johnson has the bulk of a former professional wrestler, while Statham has the lean physique of a diver. There’s Johnson’s wholesome all-American persona set against Statham’s slightly devilish charm. There’s Johnson’s deep authoritative voice playing off Statham’s distinctly hard-edged accent. The duo play very well as a study in contrasts, while both also being able to support otherwise forgettable action films in their own right. They are a perfect fit.

Hobbs and Shaw works best when it understands this. The film’s best scenes are not the ridiculously over-the-top action scenes, which often seem borrowed or lifted from much better movies and which only fleetingly manage to tip themselves over into the delightful surrealist absurdity that makes the modern (Johnson era) Fast and Furious movies such a delight. Instead, the movie comes to life when Johnson and Statham are trading schoolyard insults, posturing and snarking, indulging in the sort of old-fashioned buddy action movie banter that is so rare these days.

Suns out, guns out.

Much has been written about the death of the movie star. Indeed, despite its sixties setting, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seems to be at least in part about the decline of the movie star, especially given its casting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. It’s notable that, while Johnson and Statham are both recognisable names and familiar faces, they haven’t also been the sort of draws that many observers would expect. Johnson’s last solo film not tied to an established intellectual property was Skyscraper, and it flopped at the American box office.

Buddy movies seem to be a tough sell in the modern era. Arguably one of the (many) missteps in trying to sell Men in Black International to audiences was vastly overestimating how eager audiences were to see Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson together. The pair had previously played well off one another in Thor: Ragnarok, but that film drew audiences on its brand rather than its stars. Watching Hobbs and Shaw, it’s debatable how much of the built-in audience is attracted by the promise of a Statham and Johnson team-up and how much of that audience just wants a Fast and Furious film.

The art of wrestling in the rain.

It seems likely that the latter is a big draw, which is a shame. Hobbs and Shaw works best when it channels the sorts of low-key buddy action comedies of the eighties, the familiar narrative template of two characters who hate one another but who find themselves forced to work together. Movies that linger in the memory not for their plots or their narratives, but for their templates. At the high end of the spectrum, there’s Lethal Weapon. At the bottom of this particular pool, there’s Tango and Cash. Somewhere in the middle, there’s 48 Hours.

Director David Leitch understands this. Leitch pitches the scenes between the title characters as something out of a Netflix romantic comedy. He frames a lot of their confrontations in intense close-up, staring head-on at each of his two leading men as they banter, the kind of cinematic language that suggests a looming kiss. The intensity between the two sizzles with sort of homoeroticism associated with eighties masculinity; the intense close-up on Hobbs tightening grip on a chair as the banter escalates, the two arguing across the aisle of a passenger plane as they lean closer and closer to fill the space between them.

Watch yourself.

The most remarkable thing about Hobbs and Shaw is that Leitch does a much better job with these low-key dialogue-driven scenes than with the action. Leitch is a former stuntman and stunt coordinator, and his directorial work to date has largely been built around impressive action scenes. Deadpool and Deadpool 2 had a strong personality, but that arguably came from star Ryan Reynolds. Atomic Blonde‘s storytelling was muddled to the point of incoherence, but its action sequences were breathtaking.

In contrast, the action sequences in Hobbs and Shaw feel rather distracting and perfunctory. This is disappointing, given the goofy appeal of the franchise’s action sensibility. The Fast and the Furious franchise is built around the kinds of movies where Vin Diesel hurdles himself through windscreens so that he might fly like Superman, where cars hop between skyscrapers, where the Rock punches a torpedo. Absurdity and escalation is the name of the game. (It’s no coincidence that space might be the franchise’s next stop.)

Aisle be there…

Hobbs and Shaw occasionally channels a little of that madcap energy, particularly in an exhilarating climax that (understandably) features heavily in trailers. The Rock lassoing an attack helicopter definitely feels like a worth addition to the franchise’s action canon. However, so many of the other action sequences feel flat and routine. In fact, many of them feel like they are lifted from other movies; like an explosive showdown at a retired nuclear reactor from X-Men: Origins – Wolverine or Justice League, a motorcycle chase through a major European capital from Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

There’s also an awkward discomfort within the film, concerning the tension that exists between Johnson and Statham. Leitch understands that the movie lives or dies on the chemistry between his two leads, but the script repeatedly feels the need to assert their heterosexuality. Shaw is shown waking up next to an anonymous woman, while Eiza González is afforded an extended cameo, spending a not-inconsiderable amount of her screen time making out with Statham. The movie seems to protest too much.

No time for reflection.

Hobbs presents a similar problem. The previous Fast and Furious films had largely desexualised Hobbs. Hobbs was achingly wholesome; one of Hobbs’ defining traits was that he was a single father to an adorable young girl, a canny choice playing cleverly on Johnson’s no-nonsense all-American wholesomeness. In contrast, Hobbs and Shaw foists a potential love interest upon Hobbs in the person of Hattie Shaw. Hattie is the younger sister of Deckard Shaw, even if the film kind of glosses over the dynamic with Owen Shaw; the other Shaw sibling is curiously omitted from flashbacks and only fleetingly mentioned at the climax.

The introduction of Hattie is an issue. Hobbs and Shaw is a movie that features a genetically-engineered human-cyborg hybrid with a bike that seems to respond to him telepathically, but the most unbelievable aspect of the film is that it expects the audience to believe that Dwayne Johnson has more sexual chemistry with Vanessa Kirby than with Jason Statham. (The film also asks audiences to believe that Statham and Kirby are siblings within the same age bracket, when Statham is twenty-one years older than Kirby, but that’s another issue.)

They really buggy each other.

To be clear, this isn’t Vanessa Kirby’s fault. Kirby’s defining blockbuster performance was in Fallout, in which she convincingly climaxed to Tom Cruise uttering the line “I’ve murdered women and children with smallpox – I have no line.” Kirby is an engaging screen presence, a good screen partner, and plays very well with these sorts of archetypal performances. There is also a sense that the film is in on the joke, understanding that Hattie’s primary purpose is to sublimate the homoerotic charge between the two leads. After all, Hobbs’ precocious daughter explains to him that banter is flirting; but with which Shaw?

Visually, Leitch frames his characters very much in the style of an eighties action movie. Recalling the oiled up musclemen of eighties action films, Johnson goes shirtless for the climax, shot from low angles and shot by flickering firelight. When Shaw does bring Hobbs a shirt, he remarks, “It’s your favourite size: skin tight.” Even in terms of dialogue, Shaw spends an inordinate amount of time wondering how much baby oil Hobbs applies, and wondering about the particulars of Hobbs “endowment.”

People in glass rooms shouldn’t throw chairs.

In the kinds of buddy movies that inspired Hobbs and Shaw, this sort of juvenile bantering would seem homophobic. However, there’s just enough modernity in Hobbs and Shaw that it seems self-aware and playful. For all Shaw has a rough edge, his tailored suits and British accent suggest a sophisticate. “I’m what you call a champagne problem,” he boasts early in the film. Later in the movie, in the middle of awkward banter between the two about the (reportedly) simmering attraction between Hobbs and Hattie, Hobbs pauses the conversation to avow affirmative consent. “It’s not 1955 anymore,” he chides his co-star.

Hobbs and Shaw suffers whenever it takes the emphasis off the title characters, whether through the awkward assertions of their heterosexuality or through the sort of plot machinations that are necessary on a film like this. To be fair to the Fast and Furious films, the franchise has generally made a point to feature generic antagonists with generic plots, instead emphasising the action and group dynamics. Hobbs and Shaw struggles a bit in terms of its plotting and its antagonist.

He came, he Shaw, he conquered.

Idris Elba’s villainous Brixton is certainly generic. The most notable thing about Brixton is that the film effectively elevates the subtext of the Fast and Furious franchise by turning Brixton into a literal superhero. Repeatedly augmented by technology, Brixton has a bulletproof costume, super strength, incredible reflexes. “I’m black Superman!” the character triumphantly declares. At one point, he even catches a flipped car in homage to that iconic cover to Action Comics #1. The only issue is that Hobbs and Shaw never bothers to give Brixton any personality.

Part of this is structural. Brixton is a henchman, muscle for a threat that seems certain to pop up in the next installment of the franchise. More than that, Brixton is defined primarily as a soldier, which means that the movie characterises him as dour and humourless. Unlike the title characters, Brixton never seems to be in on the joke, never seems to be having fun. The closest that the villain comes to having a coherent or convincing perspective is when he takes stock of the value of the human body, in mineral terms. “Three dollars,” he settles on. “Three dollars fifty.” (However, he later decries “capitalism” as something he is opposing.)

Ready willing and Elba.

Instead, Brixton becomes a mouthpiece for the sort of generic philosophical nonsense that is all but required in a modern blockbuster film. Brixton is the front for a major corporation that secretly controls the world and is responsible for all manner of conspiracy theory plotting. Brixton argues for Social Darwinism and population control, for transhumanism and augmentation, with a healthy fear of big technology thrown into the mix. He’s intended as some sort of anthropomorphic expression of a grab bag of modern anxieties.

None of this really adds up to a coherent thematic perspective, instead feeling like a collection of soundbytes culled from collective unconscious anxieties. The Fast and the Furious franchise might have featured absurd action spectacle, but it was generally quite canny in its plotting. This was the franchise that repeatedly asserted that “it’s about family”, keeping the emphasis on its soap opera plotting and avoiding anything resembling a political statement. Hobbs and Shaw retains this emphasis on family – both Hobbs and Shaw reunite with alienated siblings – but tries to add generic modern blockbuster politics, to ill effect.

This weird emphasis on plot and mythology within Hobbs and Shaw has a destabilising effect. So much of the plot is tied to Shaw; his relationship with Brixton, the use of Hattie as a macguffin, his history with the villainous corporation. This is probably a canny choice, given that Statham is the stronger actor of the two leads, and so probably better suited to carrying that load than Johnson’s straightforward charm. However, the emphasis on plot does mean that Hobbs feels superfluous to a lot of the film. (In fact, one scene explicitly finds Brixton repeatedly trying to get Hobbs to shut up so he can exposit to Shaw.)

Hobbs and Shaw works best when it focuses on Hobbs and Shaw. Everything else is just noise. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of noise.

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