FILM REVIEW – FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW. With Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren. Written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce. Directed by David Leitch. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong language. 135 minutes.
A much-needed summer vacation from the long-running franchise’s increasingly overcrowded, motorhead mythology, FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW is a goofy, scaled-back spin-off (or side-quel, if you will) stranding Dwayne Johnson’s gargantuan lawman alongside Jason Statham’s snarling spy on a mission of international mayhem. It’s a mismatched buddy picture aspiring to the spirit of 1980s cable staples like “48 Hrs.” or “Tango & Cash” in which the leads spend as much time busting each other’s balls as they spend breaking bad-guys’ heads. The movie’s a little too PG-13 and way too overstuffed for its own good, but clever stunts and movie star charisma have a way of carrying the day. It’s more fun than the last two lackluster “Furious” films, and you can do a lot worse at the movies in August.
Vanessa Kirby – who plays Princess Margaret on the Netflix series “The Crown” and memorably stole her single scene in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” last summer – commits grand larceny here are as MI-6 agent Hattie Shaw, framed for the betrayal and murder of her team while on the trail of a deadly mega-virus. Johnson’s musclehead federal agent Luke Hobbs is dispatched to track her down, but since this is a “Fast & Furious” movie it also must be a family affair, and so Hattie turns out to be the kid sister of Statham’s surly, sometime-villain Deckard Shaw, who’s hellbent on bringing her home to their mum (Dame Helen Mirren, behind bars and having a ball).
Of course, the plot is just a pretext to get sworn enemies Hobbs and Shaw shouting insults at each other while snapping the necks of assorted henchmen – ramping up the animosity by having Johnson become smitten with Statham’s sister. But then filmgoers everywhere are gonna fall hard for Kirby in this. Elegantly choking out adversaries between her thighs while rolling her eyes at the monotonous macho chest-thumping of her co-stars, Hattie’s often the only adult in the room. (Also my lord, those cheekbones!) It’s a star-making turn and almost enough to make me watch “The Crown.”
They’re all pitted against Idris Elba – having a grand old time as a cybernetically engineered super-solider who can apparently control his motorcycle with his mind. He’s the enforcer for a massive doomsday cult operating out of a secret lab inside Chernobyl, but for a movie featuring such outlandish future technology “Hobbs & Shaw” works best within the realm of old-fashioned, close-quarter smackdowns. Helmer David Leitch is a former stuntman who co-directed the first “John Wick” picture, carrying over that kinetic energy to Charlize Theron’s kickass Cold War thriller “Atomic Blonde” and the surprisingly well-structured set-pieces of last year’s “Deadpool 2.”
He indulges in a couple of massive CGI meltdowns here – it is a summer blockbuster after all – but the most effective action scenes in “Hobbs & Shaw” are the artfully staged fisticuffs, as when Kirby wallops one of Johnson’s underlings with his own office furniture, or when the two title characters devise a way to surmount Elba’s superpowers by blocking his punches with their faces. The best beats are rooted in character, like when Johnson hurls himself out a window and rappels down the side of a building while Statham nonchalantly takes the elevator.
Leitch exhibits far less control over two gratuitous guest star cameos, both improvising long and vamping hard for laughs in unfunny scenes that drag on for what feels like forever. I’m also not convinced the movie really needed a trip to Samoa for Hobbs to reconcile with his estranged brother (Cliff Curtis) but screenwriter Chris Morgan has penned the past seven “Furious” films and I’m pretty sure he thinks he’s getting paid by the number of times he types the word “family.” It’s all warm and fuzzy with a good message for the kids yet what we really came to see are scenes such as The Rock attaching a tow truck to a helicopter like a fish hook and trying to reel it in.
On that front “Hobbs & Shaw” more than delivers, and I’ll concede that these sort of spin-off side-quels strike me as a shrewd way to pare down the “Fast & Furious” franchise’s oversized cast and get around the gossip that nobody wants to work with Vin Diesel anymore. If you ask me, the next one should be “Hattie and Letty,” starring Kirby and Michelle Rodriguez.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.