It’s been five years since the first John Wick was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and the divergent careers of the men who made the first film are, well, fascinating. On one hand, you have Chad Stahelski, who stuck with the franchise he’d created, and went on to refine his style to the point of unbelievablepotency, much like drug dealers or, legally, dispensaries have done over the years. On the other, you have the career of David Leitch, which has been an incredible contrast to his former co-directors. He put out the Charlize Theron vehicle Atomic Blonde a few years ago, which was so “cool” that it practically froze to death, aside from one fun action sequence, and did gun-for-hire work on Deadpool 2 after original helmer Tim Miller dropped out of the running for the sequel. That was fun enough, but you could feel the walls of the self-imposed box closing in. His latest film, the Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw (full title Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw), contains some trace amounts of his original style, like peanut dust on furniture.
For one, there’s some bisexual lighting in Hattie Shaw’s (Vanessa Kirby) stylish London apartment, in which her brother Deckard (Jason Statham) does fist-based emergency dental surgery to some jackbooted thugs early on in the film. There’s banter, including some from Deadpool 2 star Rob Delaney, and badass British people throughout. And that’s about where the similarities end. Though, perhaps blandness was the best possible outcome for this spin-off, which came about after the film’s other mega-watt star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson feuded with series lead Vin Diesel on Fate of the Furious. Universal made the best out of an understandably silly situation and split the two up, giving Diesel full control of his slice of the franchise and giving Johnson, who has no problems carrying a movie by himself, this spin-off (all wounds have apparently healed, though it seems the casting of John Cena in a role similar to Rock’s is suspicious and very funny).
And so, based on their chemistry in the last film, it made sense to pair Luke Hobbs with Deckard Shaw. In case you need a refresher, the former’s a DSS agent, the latter was once a Special Forces assassin for queen and country. Hobbs has a daughter (Eliana Sua) whom he loves very much, though he’s estranged from the rest of his family in Samoa; Shaw has a mother (Helen Mirren*) whom he adores, and an MI6 agent sister that he’s estranged from. But the two of them are roped back into the world of espionage by the CIA when, on a recovery mission Hattie is framed for the theft of a super-virus in London. She’s carrying the virus — a technological and constantly-morphing thing that liquifies the insides, says one agent — in her blood stream, where it’ll lie dormant unless activated or removed.
The two understandably aren’t pleased to be working with one another, and spout off tons of goofy insults (at one point, Shaw suggests that Hobbs’ t-shirt size is “spray-on,” and Hobbs, upon seeing Hattie for the first time, reacts with a stunned “She’s too pretty to be your sister”) and compete in ridiculous contests to prove their bona fides to one another. And, given that Statham and Johnson are incredibly skilled at action comedy, their work here manages to make things go down pretty well moment-to-moment. One comedy set-piece, set at an airport, is one of the strongest laughs of the year in a big-budget tentpole, and its mid-credits call-back is well worth the pain you’ll put on your bladder by holding back that 72-ounce soda you drank for another few minutes.
But they’re up against a big opponent: aside from the CIA and MI6, Shaw’s sister is being pursued by Brixton Hale (a fun, cocky Idris Elba), an agent of the enigmatic organization Eteon, whose motivations are unclear but are laced with relevant buzzwords like “capitalism” and “climate change.” What they are doing is genetically enhancing their soldiers, so much so that Hale feels like “black Superman,” but he behaves a bit more like Midnighter from Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority. He knows what you’re going to do before you do it, probabilities and all, and he can counter with incredible force. Oh, he’s also bulletproof and has a crazy transforming motorcycle that obeys his every thought, so he’s more than a match for the three of them. Sounds great, right? Well, it’s a lot less compelling in practice than on paper.
There are two main problems with Leitch’s approach to the F&F franchise. The first is that, at 136 minutes, it’s just too crammed full of bullshit. The quip-beat-quip formula that’s become a mainstay of the former Nation of Domination member’s film career can only go so far in offsetting just how bloated this movie feels. While their bickering is entertaining, there’s just so much of it here that it loses its potency, a problem the characters never had when they were smaller aspects of a larger ensemble. And, as such, the looseness that previous defined these movies in between action segments is gone, the family atmosphere is missing, even though the entire film is, once again, centered around them.
Now, there’s always been some fun hangout goofiness at the heart of the series that has justified their ever-growing lengths — the Toretto Sunday dinners are a mainstay, after all — and for the most part, all of that seemingly organic charm is missing thanks to the newfound propulsive focus on its globe-spanning narrative. And, as for that narrative, it wears its influences proudly, but writers Chris Morgan (a franchise mainstay) and Drew Pearce don’t do right by them. For all ofHobbs and Shaw‘s allusions to Bond and The Italian Job (which, credit where credit is due, the joke involving the latter is actually solidly-written), his main source of inspiration here seems to be Marvel. Moments, such as when Shaw sees Brixton for the first time in the middle of a street fight or when Johnson has to pull down a helicopter using a chain attached to a car, that feel ripped straight from the Russos’ work on the Captain America films, down to their blocking and Leitch’s shot selection.
Yet, it’s the film’s see-what-shit-sticks approach in terms of scattershot cameos and minor characters is most reminiscent of the MCU, though at its very worst: it often evokes bad memories of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2. There’s a romantic subplot between Johnson and Kirby that goes absolutely nowhere; Eteon, the shadow organization Brixton works for is purposely vague and empty enough for other filmmakers and producers to flesh out later on; and Eiza Gonzalez shows up for thirty seconds in order to help our heroes out, presumably so that she can be evil cannon fodder in another picture down the road. There’s nothing wrong with setting the groundwork for future installments in a movie, and indeed, the F&F franchise has been particularly good of spinning gold out of its loose ends, so much so that this review is about one of them. Still, this blunt-force attempt to force a spin-off series without laying all of that groundwork causes Hobbs & Shaw to lose a whole lot of its charm in the process. It’s got that Alita problem, in which, either through some sort of studio-mandated or producer-supplied arrogance, the story is intentionally incomplete in hopes that you’ll pay for the next installment later on, without the guarantee that there ever will be one.
All this perhaps would be solved by the other major issue with Leitch’s work here — his action scenes — and it brings me zero pleasure to tell you that the ones in Hobbs & Shaw, on the whole, are not very good. Specifically, his fight sequences, which are almost astonishingly generic. They’re full of quick-cut hyperactivity, which doesn’t bode well for the choreography when paired with the choppy shakey-cam aesthetic that Leitch is going for visually. Even the big battle between Johnson’s brothers and the Eteon goons at Elba’s disposal isn’t very interesting, outside of seeing The Rock howl like his cousin, Joe Anoa’i, better known to wrestling fans as Roman Reigns. And that’s all you’ve got!
For all of their pros and cons, Leitch’s prior films at least had one truly show-stopping fight that endured in one’s mind after leaving the theater. Think about the stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde, or the finale of Deadpool 2, or, well, the whole of John Wick: if your memory’s alright, you probably remember specific shots and stunts in the middle of those sequences. No moments stand out here. He fares better with those involving vehicles, and the film’s car-centric finale is a lot of tremendously goofy fun on par with anything else in the F&F franchise, but they’re too few and far in between for them really to make much of a difference, and when they do, the stunt work is replaced with CGI effects. It’s all so very safe and bland, which is incredibly discouraging and disappointing for this series, where the bottom line has finally caught up to the ante.