FAST & FURIOUS: HOBBS & SHAW. Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Cliff Curtis, Helen Mirren. Directed by David Leitch. 136 minutes. Rated M (Action violence and coarse language).
When Marvel’s 2012 epic crossover movie ‘The Avengers’ came out and destroyed box office records like they were a New York City block, every studio in town wanted a piece of the “cinematic universe” action. One after the other, executives announced wildly ambitious plans for interconnected universes based on properties like old Hammer monster movies or the legend of Robin Hood. As these plans all eventually stumbled and failed, the burgeoning success of other franchises shone a light on a new and organic way towards securing a piece of the cinematic universe pie: creating spinoffs from and sequels to movies and characters that were already proven box office draws. For instance, Warner Bros. cleverly spun the success of ‘The Conjuring’ into a universe of mid-budget horror movies worth billions of dollars. Now it’s Universal Pictures’ turn, betting that audiences will turn out for the continued adventures of an odd couple featured in their ‘Fast & Furious’ blockbusters. It’s a clever move; if the last two instalments in the core series were able to gross over a billion dollars apiece, then it’s a reasonable assumption that a cinematic side mission should attract a fair chunk of the same audience. Lucky for executives at Universal, director David Leitch and his stars Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham have managed to deliver a likeable action flick that adds a bit of its own sci-fi/Samoan flavour to the ‘F&F’ formula.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s introduction as DSS agent Luke Hobbs in ‘Fast Five’ coincided with the franchise’s focal shift from drag racing and street level crime to vehicular warfare and globetrotting missions. It was rather fitting, given that the wrestler turned actor had garnered a reputation as an enormous audience drawcard, that his hulking screen presence marked the series’ first steps away from its car-loving niche and into mainstream, four quadrant appeal. Reliably churning out action adventures year-round, Johnson has become arguably the biggest box office draw of today, trading on his staggering physical presence, solid comedic timing and megawatt charm. Hobbs is no different from any of Johnson’s other characters, a doting single father-cum-world-saving G-Man with a derring-do that borders on suicidal and a thriving side business in trading macho quips.
Johnson is well paired with Jason Statham, the British action star playing the scalpel to Johnson’s sledgehammer (not unlike the Tom Cruise-Henry Cavill dynamic in ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’, one of many similarities between ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ and recent ‘M:I’ movies). Statham’s Deckard Shaw, first introduced as the villain in ‘Furious 7’ to an effusive reaction from critics and fans, was recruited by the good guys in ‘The Fate of the Furious’, where his aggrandising, hypermasculine chemistry with Johnson ultimately inspired this film. Hobbs and Shaw are reintroduced here in split screen going about their respective morning routines; though amusing, there is nothing subtle about the contrast (for instance, while Shaw likes a delicate breakfast omelette, Hobbs drinks his eggs raw). Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce’s screenplay puts the pedal to the metal to get audiences to the duo’s reunion, with the CIA recruiting both men to track down a rogue MI6 operative who’s gone on the run in London with a deadly virus. The twist? Said operative is actually Deckard’s estranged sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby, another ‘M:I – Fallout’ connection and a continuation of David Leitch’s preoccupation with powerful women).
With Statham now on hero duties, they’ve turned to another imposing Brit to fill the antagonist’s shoes; Idris Elba is Brixton Lore, a former colleague of Deckard’s now enhanced with bionic implants and working for shady tech company, Eteon. Elba’s got the right physicality and growl to play a baddie, and you almost believe that he could realistically face off against Johnson and Statham. The character’s metal skeleton and the intelligent heads-up display installed in his eyes help even the scales a little; as Brixton himself notes, he’s basically “the black Superman”. Eteon first created the virus that’s now in Hattie’s possession and they want it back, dispatching Brixton and a legion of robo-soldiers to bring her in. As the action jumps between London, the Ukraine and Samoa, Hobbs and Shaw must learn to work together if they’re to get to Hattie before Brixton does.
This being a ‘Fast & Furious’ spinoff, much of the action takes place on two, four or more wheels. Director David Leitch, who leveraged his excellent work co-directing the first ‘John Wick’ film into directing gigs on ‘Atomic Blonde’ and ‘Deadpool 2’ in the last two years, does a solid job with the required automotive mayhem, as anyone familiar with his previous work would expect. Though some of it might kindly be described as your stock standard “fast cars and trucks doing jumps and smashing into stuff”, Leitch stages some cool moments with Brixton’s futuristic motorbike, which combine’s the self-driving tech of K.I.T.T. from ‘Knight Rider’ with the incredible shape-shifting capabilities of the Knight Bus from ‘Harry Potter’. The more memorable scenes are (perhaps unsurprisingly for those familiar with Leitch’s previous films) those that don’t feature wheels at all, like an astonishing early scene that sees Hobbs jumping off skyscraper sans parachute in pursuit of Brixton and two of his goons, only sparingly using their ziplines to slow his fall. It’s truly bonkers, in the best, most ‘Fast & Furious’ way possible (recall that this was a franchise that once had its heroes face off against a nuclear submarine). A later fight scene sees Hobbs recruiting his “Uso e” (Samoan for “brothers”) to take on Brixton’s goons in all-out, hand-to-hand warfare, armed with an arsenal of Hobbs’ family’s traditional weapons. It’s a fittingly muscular finale that highlights Johnson’s Samoan heritage in a way that no other blockbuster has even tried.
Other than Eddy Marsan’s brief appearance as a Russian scientist, the rest of the cast reads like an audition reel for future franchise appearances. Some big-name cameos include Ryan Reynolds and Rob Delaney as CIA agents, Kevin Hart as an air marshal, Eiza Gonzales as a mysterious thief, and a handful of imposing Polynesian and Kiwi actors as Hobbs’ family, including Cliff Curtis and wrestler Roman Reigns. By investing in such a line-up, it does feel a little like ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ is treating its future instalments as a sure thing, and while their potential cast gives one reason for optimism, this assuredness has leaked into the movie somewhat. The script leans a little too heavily on the pre-established chemistry between the titular duo, and while the combined power of these two megastar portrayers handily shoulders that responsibility, there’s certainly room in the sequels to develop an identity at the screenplay level beyond an expansion of their repartee from ‘Fate’.
‘Hobbs & Shaw’ is a solid action blockbuster that ticks off its modest list of goals. ‘Fast & Furious’ fans will be sated, as will fans of both Johnson and Statham. The fandom most likely to be disappointed are Leitch aficionados, with the director’s knack for brutal yet balletic long-take fight choreography clipped by the constraints of this largely bitumen-bound series. That said, it’s a strong opening salvo for the newly established ‘Fast & Furious’ cinematic universe, and one that speaks to the importance of learning what audiences like before making any bold announcements. The irony of this being a slow, decades-long process must surely not be lost on the architects of the budding ‘Fast’ Universe.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 1.