I can’t think of many franchises that make me laugh more than the Fast & Furious films. It’s not that they’re bad — quite often, they’re a blast — but as they’ve gotten more outlandish in their chase sequences and globetrotting gusto, the more joyful they’ve become. Let Tom Cruise worry about doing his own stunts and the John Wick folks brag about their practical effects: The F&F brain trust is fully committed to utter artificiality. They know that we know that everything we’re watching is fake, and so they lean into the absurdity, practically begging us to laugh at the shenanigans. C’mon, there’s no way you can’t find this hilarious:
I say that without sarcasm or malice. F&F sequences are often cleverly staged and brazenly executed. But where other action movies want to have at least one foot planted in a semblance of realism, this franchise realized that these are fantasy films — ones in which the bad guys always growl dopey threats and the good guys intone pseudo-profound words of wisdom when they’re not advocating for the importance of family. The films are put together with the utmost seriousness but aren’t meant to be taken seriously at all. It’s a shallow pleasure, but an abiding one.
If you think that pleasure is easy to craft, though, I suggest you check out Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, a film that is kinda sorta an F&F movie except in all the ways that really matter. Sure, it contains some characters you remember from the franchise. There are, indeed, car chases. And the notion of family is woven into the story somewhat. But Hobbs & Shaw never quite feels like an F&F film because it’s rarely funny.
Our heroes need no introduction. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) works for the U.S. government — he teamed up with Dom, Brian and the rest of the crew for Fast & Furious 6 (“The One Where Letty Is Back From the Dead and Has Amnesia”) and squared off with British assassin Shaw (Jason Statham) in Furious 7 (“The One Where Kurt Russell Shows Up”). Well, these two guys are like oil and water — they don’t get along at all! But, wouldn’t you know it, they must join forces in Hobbs & Shaw to recover a missing killer virus — and if that’s not enough, they also have to wage war on Brixton (Idris Elba), a former MI6 agent who’s now bent on “curing” the world by weeding out the weakest with this super-bug.
Plots in F&F movies are normally flimsy excuses to get bodies (and cars and sometimes helicopters and jets) into motion, and so it doesn’t matter that Hobbs & Shaw has a pretty standard save-the-world scenario. What happens after the setup is all fans care about, and the more difficult the scheme the better. (It’s customary in an F&F film for someone on the team to propose breaking into some impenetrable location — and then for the director to cut to Ludacris or Tyrese Gibson for a “Man, that’s crazy!” reaction shot.)
But while there’s a decent amount of “How are they gonna get out of this?” dilemmas in Hobbs & Shaw, the answers tend to be pretty boring, especially by the standards of this franchise. Often, Hobbs and Shaw just … punch people. Or they shoot them. Or they punch them and shoot them. And sometimes they’re joined by Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who’s Shaw’s sister and an MI6 agent. She also shoots and punches people — but because she’s a woman, she also does that patented “jump into the air and wrap your legs around the villain’s neck and twist” move made famous by both Black Widow and Rebecca Ferguson’s Mission: Impossible character. None of this is particularly inventive. Worse, none of it sparks much joy. It wasn’t until Hobbs & Shaw that I realized I didn’t go to F&F movies to see action scenes — I go to watch ridiculous ones. And ridiculousness is in short supply in the new movie.
That may seem like an odd thing to say for a film that includes a scene where a character throws another character from one moving vehicle onto another — all so a third character can catch her, in slow-motion, as he drives the other car. (Hobbs & Shaw ain’t exactly Moonlight, you know) But in the cutthroat “Can you top this?” world of action blockbusters, Hobbs & Shaw feels painfully behind the times. It’s loud and frenetic like a lot of summer movies, but it’s also a bore.
For those tired of effects-heavy action films, these distinctions are probably meaningless. But something like Fast & Furious 6 has a sweep and panache that’s light-years beyond Hobbs & Shaw’s puny imagination. It’s where the real artistry lies in movies like this: giving us a heightened, original action-movie experience that’s different than what we’ve seen dozens of times before. Because blockbusters are often littered with special effects, they’ve become increasingly dehumanized. (We’re meant to root for pixels zipping around in a digital space.) But beyond their superb stunt work — which, let’s never forget, is crafted by actual people who often put their lives in danger — the F&F movies managed to get us to care about their astoundingly unsubtle characters and soap-opera storylines.
All that stuff that inspires snorts of derision are, in fact, key to what makes this franchise work. Sure, Dom is a dummy, but he’s our dummy — a 12-year-old’s idea of a cool dude brought to hammy, colorful life by Vin Diesel’s bald head, broad shoulders and gravely whispering. Honestly, he’s a more impressive photorealistic rendering of a sentient being than anything in the new Lion King.
Hobbs & Shaw doesn’t have anything nearly as enjoyable. Like other recent duds, the movie figures it’s hysterical to have two guys snap at each other the whole time. Shaw tells Hobbs he hates his face. Hobbs tells Shaw that he’s a pipsqueak with a funny accent. This goes on forever. They can’t agree on anything, even if it involves successfully completing their mission. These characters may have been crucial additions to the recent F&F films, but Hobbs & Shaw makes plain how uninteresting they are on their own. As with the Star Wars spinoffs, Hobbs & Shaw tweaks the franchise’s style a little — this is practically a 1980s buddy comedy — but director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) seems to have little appreciation for the goofy, cornball magic that makes F&F such a shameless delight. God bless him, he thinks he’s crafting a real action movie full of badass characters and badass action sequences.
But that was never what I liked about the Fast & Furious series. What’s great about these films is their total disregard for logic, gravity, tastefulness, restraint, nuance or science. The silliness that ensues is why they’ve managed to float above the many mediocrities in their genre. Hobbs & Shaw, on the other hand, is what happens when a creative team fundamentally misunderstands what makes its product work. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are a thousand times tougher than Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker. But they’re nowhere near as fun.
Here are three other takeaways from Hobbs & Shaw…
#1. Just send the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise to space already.
Because these movies have featured some outrageous action set pieces, the challenge will be where to go next. One of the obvious possibilities is space, which might seem a betrayal of the movies’ original street-racing roots, but at this point, who cares? Certainly this option has occurred to Chris Morgan, the principal writer on several of the recent F&F movies. But when asked about it in 2017 around the release of The Fate of the Furious, he sounded unsure:
“You know, it’s funny, a lot of the fans will always comment and say there’s three things you can’t do in this franchise: You cannot go to space, you cannot do time travel and you cannot have dinosaurs [laughs]. But I gotta tell you, part of my brain just wants to find that perfect story that incorporated some element of that which was so undeniable it was like, ‘No, no, it’s cool. You had to do it.’ We’ll probably never … never say never, but it is highly unlikely we’ll do those three things.”
This hasn’t kept entertainment sites from wildly speculating on how to make space travel plausible for the franchise. That same year, Gizmodo’s Charles Pulliam-Moore offered some unsolicited ideas for sequels, including one involving blowing up an asteroid on a collision course with Earth: “[T]he Family is called upon by a secret organization of world governments to pilot a sophisticated fleet of car-like rockets whose combined payloads are the only thing that can save our planet.” This doesn’t seem that ridiculous.
With Hobbs & Shaw being the first F&F film since The Fate of the Furious, that of course has meant another round of “When are these guys going to space?” questions that Morgan has had to answer. He’s still mulling it over. “I would never shoot down space,” he said this week. “Never, never. I would literally never shoot down anything, as long as it hits the parameters: ‘Is it badass? Is it awesome? Will the audience love it? And will it not break faith with the audience as they’re watching it?’ I’m down for whatever.”
So here’s my prediction. Next year’s Fast & Furious 9 will either take place at least partly in space or there will be an in-joke reference to space, which prompts a character saying something like, “Us going to space? Are you crazy?!?!” At this point, Morgan has to acknowledge it in some way.
Unless, of course, he decides to have them fight dinosaurs instead. That’s fine, too.
#2. Stop asking Idris Elba about being James Bond.
Idris Elba has had a number of memorable roles in everything from The Wire to Luther to the Thor films. But sometimes I wonder if he’ll be most remembered as the guy who constantly had to deal with rumors that he’s going to be the next James Bond. Daniel Craig has been 007 starting with 2006’s Casino Royale, and just about ever since, the media has whispered that Elba would be a great replacement. And, of course, it wasn’t just online gossip: Sony co-chairperson Amy Pascal wrote in a leaked 2014 email that “Idris should be the next [B]ond.”
The speculation largely went nowhere, however, as Elba has said that he’s never been approached about the job. But it nonetheless prompted the sort of shithead response you’d expect from some quarters — Bond can’t be a black guy! — while also inspiring some thoughtful conversations about how actors of color face inherent obstacles in playing historically white characters. Last year, The Hollywood Reporter polled about 2,200 Americans, finding that 52 percent of respondents approved of a black 007 — although, when they were asked specifically if they’d be cool with Elba taking on the role, that number rose to 63 percent.
And so Elba keeps being asked about becoming Bond, which is annoying. Earlier this year, he declared that he wasn’t interested in the role: “Bond is one of the biggest franchises in the world, and for that reason, whoever ends up playing it, lives it. You’re that character, and known as that character for many, many years. I’m creating characters now that can still live alongside Idris. Not ones that take over me and solely define me.” A few months later, he confessed that the anger he witnessed online about the rumors of him playing James Bond also turned him off. “You just get disheartened when you get people from a generational point-of-view going, ‘It can’t be,’” he told Vanity Fair. “And it really turns out to be the color of my skin. And then if I get it and it didn’t work, or it did work, would it be because of the color of my skin? That’s a difficult position to put myself into when I don’t need to.”
My view has always been that if he was James Bond, that would be great — but honestly, he doesn’t need it. In some ways, he’s actually in the best position. People so badly want him to be 007 that they can fantasize about what a good Bond he could be. It would be hard for an actual James Bond movie to live up to that. So it’s probably better that he never land the part. Basically, Elba gets to be an amazing 007 without ever having to go through all the trouble that the job would entail. Nice work if you can get it.
#3. Everybody has already made the “Calvin and Hobb(e)s and Shaw” joke.
At some point, like lots of people, I thought, “Hey, wait a second… Hobbs & Shaw… That sounds a little like Calvin and Hobbes… What if…?” So feel free to avoid making that joke online — everybody already has…
For the record, I think Dwayne Johnson would be Hobbes. He’s way less irritable than Jason Statham is in the movie.
And now, I’d like to give a special shout-out to those Twitter folks who actually utilized their Photoshop talents on this joke…
Both of these pretend movies look better than Hobbs & Shaw.