When it comes to the Fast & Furious films, the first thing you do is check your brain at the door. These aren’t films for intellectuals, but are pure popcorn-munching, adrenaline-fueled action spectaculars where the men and women are fierce and the unbelievable is merely the first step to greatness. They didn’t start that way in 2001 when the first Fast movie premiered. The first film was inspired by the Ken Li’s “Racer X” magazine article where the action drama centered on an FBI agent infiltrating a gang of thieves before he fell in love and became one of them. Granted, it’s basically Point Break with cars, but the series gained new life after two less-than-successful sequels and now, here we are, eight films deep with another expected in 2020. To tide you over, universe-creating scribe Chris Morgan and co-writer Drew Pearce (Hotel Artemis) bring you a new Fast & Furious-adjacent film, the David Leitch-directed Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw. Cinematic powerhouses Dwayne Johnson (Faster) and Jason Statham (Crank) return as Lucas Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, two characters whose depth of disgust for each other belies a strange respect, and the fate of the world has never been so certain, so bombast, or so ridiculous.
MI6 agent Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby) is on a retrieval mission to collect a genetically-altered virus called CT17, codenamed “Snowflake,” when the mysterious Brixton (Idris Elba) interrupts the mission and kills Shaw’s team. In the aftermath, the CIA separately recruits Diplomatic Security Service agent Lucas Hobbs (Johnson) and ex-British Military officer Deckard Shaw (Statham) to track the now framed and on the run Hattie Shaw down and bring her in. There’re just two problems: Hobbs and Shaw hate each other and Brixton knows every play Shaw is going to make. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Hobbs, Shaw, and Hattie need to pull together to defeat their common enemy or the world is lost.
Like all the Fast films before it, Hobbs & Shaw is hell-bent on making the previous films’ action sequences feel like old news. Hobbs does this by taking the outrageousness of the Fast films and merging it with the ridiculousness of the Mission: Impossible series. Considering the backstories of both Hobbs and Shaw as highly-trained government agents, as well as new addition Hattie Shaw as an MI6 operative, this is a perfect opportunity to add a dash of espionage to the proceedings. This means halo jumps, hi-tech gear, and just a little bit of hacking. All of this would be an extraordinary leap considering the foes the heroes of Fast have faced, but 2017’s The Fate of the Furious introduced digital terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), opening the door for the kind of transhumanist story Hobbs utilizes. This means near-bulletproof foes, smart bikes which transform in ways Ethan Hunt can only dream, and feats of extraordinary strength and agility. As biotech-enhanced Brixton ceremoniously puts it, “I’m Black Superman” and audiences just eat it up. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the man behind the camera, David Leitch, is no stranger to stories of enhanced-humans (Deadpool 2) or impeccable action (Atomic Blonde), ensuring that there is more than one action set piece designed to leave audiences agape in astonishment. Action fans with delight in the fact that Leitch knows how to develop, frame, and direct action so that audiences can not only track what’s happening, but really get the sense that the actors are performing the stunts, leading to a more visceral reaction from the audience with each blow. There’re few moments in Hobbs where action-tracking is difficult, but it’s minimal and an unfortunate byproduct of the setting. Where Leitch tends to get a little goofy is the frequency with which the film seems to wink at the camera. The halo jump seems like a silly version of the one from Mission: Impossible – Fallout, there’s a blatant reference by Shaw to of one of Statham’s prior films, and the final confrontation is both hilariously designed for maximum punishment yet strangely feels inspired by the same sequence in Fallout. None of this, of course, is utterly reductive to the fun of Hobbs & Shaw, but the consistency with which it seems to want the audience in on the joke does get a little eye-rolling, especially with the number of surprises Leitch brings out to help color the Hobbs & Shaw corner of the universe.
Of course, none of Hobbs & Shaw would be worth writing about without the leads. Johnson brings the expected charm and charisma and even a drop of pathos, which makes this writer long for the days when Johnson did more dramatic work. Statham absolutely holds his own in his first real semi-solo outing. Impressively, neither character is given more than the other and both actors are generous in their willingness for their characters to each look equally foolish and badass as the story requires. No Fast film would be complete without some aspect of family being involved and where Hobbs’s family is teased in the start before being explored in the third act, Shaw’s family is the entry point. As Hattie, Kirby is an absolutely perfect fit even with Hobbs & Shaw’s hyper-masculine personalities. Neither a damsel nor a princess, Hattie is a soldier first, yet Kirby imbues her with a humanity that makes her no less steel-nerved than her co-stars. As Brixton, Elba offers a strong foil for the wise-ass Hobbs and Shaw in both tone, tenor, and presence. Gratefully, Brixton is written to an interesting complexity wherein he’s a physical manifestation of what the world, and therefore the audience, thinks of Shaw.
There’s little doubt that when The Fast and the Furious debuted, no one expected it to become one of the most hotly anticipated franchise in modern cinema. That first film introduced a motley band of thieves who, over the course of seven other films, grew from anti-heroes into straight up heroes, saving the world at least three times. From their humble beginnings stealing Tivos in Los Angeles in Fast 1 to engaging in automotive warfare with a submarine in Russia in Fate, the Fast & Furious series has slowly evolved into something the originals would barely recognize. Yet somehow it still feels organic and natural through the mythology creator Morgan put into motion beginning with 2009’s Fast & Furious. While some might suggest that Hobbs & Shaw is the first official extension with the Fast & Furious series, technically speaking, that honor belongs to 2006’s Tokyo Drift. Utilizing a new location and new characters to tell a similar story of a good kid running with a bad crowd, only to later be folded into the larger continuity after 2009’s Fast, 2011’s Fast Five, and 2013 & Fast & Furious 6 were all set prior to the events of Tokyo. This matters because Tokyo introduced Han, a character which became so beloved by the audience, that Morgan specifically set Fast films 4-6 before the events of Tokyo so that actor Sung Kang could reprise the role. *Spoiler alert* If you don’t already know, Han dies in Tokyo and what is first presented as an accident in the film is retconned during a credit sequence within Fast & Furious 6 making it clear that Han was murdered by Shaw. *End of spoiler* This revelation stunned audiences and made Shaw’s inclusion within Furious 7 as a villain a given and his addition to the team in Fate a conundrum. Statham is a perfect addition for these stories as he’s a gifted martial artist and versatile actor, yet the character murdered a member of the team. This creates great drama for the characters, but feels like an absolute betrayal to the audience. Frustratingly, Hobbs & Shaw spends a great deal of time shifting Shaw’s characterization from villain to anti-hero to hero, something which began in Fate, and spends virtually no time addressing why the audience should root for him at all. We may turn our brains off when we watch the Fast films, but it’s hard to turn off the heart.
When it’s all said and done, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is exactly what you expect: high-octane thrills and a gorgeous cast executing reality-defying stunts. Even when the continuity between Fate and Hobbs seems a tad off — suddenly Hobbs only works alone and Shaw matriarch Queenie (Helen Mirren) is suddenly in jail for script reasons — there’s no denying the incredibly fun thrill-ride Hobbs & Shaw offers for both newcomers and long-time fans alike. Audiences don’t necessarily come to these films due to the world-building Chris Morgan developed, but it certainly helps. Even when it feels a bit traitorous to root for Shaw, Statham’s charm and Hobb’s continued verbal abuse on Shaw help quell the unease. It certainly helps that plans are in the works for Shaw to do more than offer platitudes for his misdeeds and, with that in mind, maybe we can shift from asking for justice for Han and earn peace through forgiveness. Until then, how’s Dwayne Johnson attempting to pull down a military helicopter using a tow chain and his bare hands sound? If it brings a smile to your face, then Hobbs & Shaw will delight you from beginning to end, and that’s all audiences have ever really asked from the Fast & Furious series.
In theaters nationwide August 2nd, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.