Sunday, August 4, 2019

Thinking at Length About "Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw" (2019)

Time again for another movie review!  Well, more of a long-ass impression piece with thoughts and rambling, but you'll see what I mean.  This time around, it's the ninth installment (or first spin-off, if you want to get specific) in the long-running adrenaline-fuelled over-the-top action-comedy Fast & Furious franchise.  The Rock and Jason Statham return once again as familiar bald badasses in Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw, which just like every previous movie, requires no knowledge of or affinity for the rest of the brand to enjoy.  (If you WOULD like to know more about the franchise, consider checking out the extensive screen capture gallery with mini-review writeups on the Helix page here.)

Say what you will about the venerable action movie brand, it has always been an exciting product of its time (much like the Bond films), and though they haven't all been good (much like the Bond films), they very much reflect the moods and fears of their eras.  And so, angsty good-looking young adults street racing and hijacking shipments of CRTs and VCRs in 2001 has given way to cyber-futuristic paramilitary corporations using drones, cybernetics, and weaponized viruses to cleanse the human race in 2019.

But rest assured: the F&F brand is still by all means the over-the-top guilty pleasure it has always been.  And even though the things to feel guilty about might have changed over the years, the pleasure is still very much present.  Fans of the franchise will also be glad to see staples of the brand are still in place, such as the concept of the Stunt Position (popularized by the Just Cause series even though its use appeared in the first Fast film in 2001), the judicious use of nitrous oxide, and, naturally, the liberal use of the term "family."  More so than in the previous films (other than possibly 7 and 8), family is a core concept at the heart of this spin-off.

Directed by David Leitch, one of the pair of directors behind John Wick, Hobbs & Shaw tells a new story set in the every-evolving Fast & Furious world, reuniting two of the biggest-name actors in the brand's history.  When a deadly weaponizable virus is stolen by a rogue MI6 agent, who do the CIA spooks send in to save the world from a genocidist's wet dream?

None other than The Rock as Luke Hobbs (introduced in Fast Five), formerly of the American DSS, and Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw (introduced in a mid-credits scene in Furious 6), British ex-military whose lineage hasn't exactly kept its hands clean over the years.  Shaw's brother (played by Welsh gentleman Luke Evans in 6, 7, and 8) does not return, but their overbearing disappointed mother does, once more played by the legendary Dame Helen Mirren, who is utterly perfect in the role.

Both Shaw's and Hobbs' families are expanded in this movie.  The newest Shaw is Deckard's sister Hattie, an MI6 agent framed with killing her team and stealing a deadly virus.  Vanessa Kirby of The Crown fame is outstanding as the sassy and extremely badass Agent Hattie Shaw, and from what a friend tells me, is a great choice to play Dame Helen Mirren's daughter.  Personally, I was hoping to see the lovely Rosamund Pike as the character, but perhaps she might be a bit too classy for the scrappy, dirty-fighting Hattie character.  (But reuniting her and The Rock might've made for a fun line or two referencing their time together in that hilariously-awful DOOM3 movie.)

One of the more fun elements of the F&F brand is the blurring of the lines between characters and actors.  When discussing the films with friends, I often substitute the characters' names for the actors' names, and for good reason.  "Roman Pierce" is pretty much Tyrese Gibson.  The top-notch player-hating of "Tej Parker" sounds like it could be lyrics from a Ludacris album.  And let's not forget the gut-wrenching heartfelt farewell that closed Furious 7, which changes subtly, almost imperceptibly, from the "Dominic Torretto" character talking about the "Brian O'Connor" character to Vin Diesel directly addressing his late friend Paul Walker.

Hobbs & Shaw runs with the idea that you're not here for the rich characters or even that deep, deep F&F lore (which I could go on about at length, if I haven't already).  You watch Hobbs & Shaw to see the familiar faces and antics of big-screen badasses The Rock and Statham, and that's what you get.  Hobbs is so The Rock that not only does he deliver smack talk worthy of a wrestling promo video, but there are scenes of him straight-up working out, his famous eyebrow, and even filling up at a diner on his world-famous Cheat Day.  Man, that is one big-ass stack of pancakes.  And, of course, the final act of the movie has Hobbs (and by extension The Rock) going home to literally reunite with his family.

Statham, similarly, plays The Jason Statham Character, who you'll recognize not just from Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious, but the likes of The Transporter, Crank, The Expendables, and Guy Ritchie movies.  I don't mean any of this in a bad way -- these are familiar, fun, likeable personalities, and even if you haven't seen them trade punches and insults in F7, you can jump right into Hobbs & Shaw.  And make no mistake, the insults they trade this time around are so savage, so close to escalating to punches, that it takes a special-guest-star cameo as an Air Marshal to prevent Statham from getting Rock-Bottomed at 30,000 feet.

As is often the case in the F&F films, the story makes precious little sense or plausibility, but is perfectly serviceable as a reason (if not excuse) to have the heroes travel across the world fighting bad guys.  And what a bad guy do they have to fight against.  A dude so bad enough that in the opening scene, he even simply refers to himself as the "bad guy."  Make no mistake, Idris Elba hams it up as the villainous Brixton, and it is pure ridiculous perfection.

Elba's character humorously refers to himself as "Black Superman," but he's more like "Black Crysis Guy."  Brixton is a genetically- and cybernetically-enhanced super-soldier outfitted with a bulletproof bodysuit and some kind of self-driving shape-shifting motorcycle that feels out of place, like it fell out of those soul-crushing Generic Overdesigned Hollywood Robot flicks that crapped all over a beloved line of toys, comic books, and cartoons.  The high-tech futurism doesn't quite gel with the F&F brand in my opinion, and that includes the Hollywood hacking stuff from 7 and 8.

Brixton works for some kind of transhumanism-focused death cult whose leader is never seen but sounds like Dr. Samuel Hayden from DOOM4.  They want the virus that Hattie Shaw's team died to protect, and that she, her brother, and Hobbs have to travel the world to keep out of enemy hands.  But it seems that despite all of the bad guys' attack drones, futuristic vehicles, and electronically-activated guns, they only have one supersoldier.  I don't know how much it costs to make a supersoldier like Idris Elba's character, but surely a pair of them would be much more effective than just one.

Furthermore, and strangely enough, Augmented Idris Elba's abilities seem quite similar to what Regular-Ass The Rock can do normally.  The are obviously standouts, like Brixton's ocular implants and HUD, but many of Hobbs' feats of strength seem comparable to what the superpowered villain can do.

Travelling the world, fighting bad guys, and dropping some hilarious dialogue along the way, Hobbs & Shaw really delivers, and cyberpunk themes aside, it doesn't feel like that much of a departure from the mainline F&F flicks, absence of the ensemble cast notwithstanding.  The humour is there, the action is intense, the dialogue is right where it needs to be, and the story is suitably nonsensical to string the action scenes together.  But it's not without its faults.

There are a few celebrity cameos that go on way too long and are not consistently funny enough to be worthwhile.  The first one, at the diner, was great -- the others, not so much.  They attempted to work the Air Marshal into the story later, sure, but that doesn't make the character less annoying or the delivery any better.  And I'm surprised with the casting: how'd that guy manage to find the time for an unfunny cameo with his busy schedule of cheating on his wife?

The mid- and post-credits scenes were good for a chuckle, I guess, but felt like more excuses to keep a cameo character around for a bit longer even after overstaying his welcome.  The scenes don't push the brand forward, set anything up, or answer any questions in the way the mid- and post-credits scenes from 1, 5, and 6 did.

Director David Leitch also seems to have regrettably stepped away from one of the decisions that made John Wick as strong as it was: rather than let the audience see the action of the well-choreographed stunts and fight sequences, Hobbs & Shaw is mired in the typical overused big-budget Hollywood shaky-cam effects that Leitch steered clear of in Keanu's quest for revenge.  Why the same couldn't be done here is beyond me.

More standard Hollywood techniques include the movie's handling of computer equipment.  Hackers hacking hackers is nothing new to the brand, but the death cult mercs have electronic safety measures on their firearms that require the weapons' operators to wear some kind of security gloves that authorize the weapons to fire.  No glove, no love.  However, the security tech can be hacked, preventing any firearms from being used.  When the hacking program finishes and the mercs can use their weapons again, would they really just surrender to the Samoan warriors, and not, say, take as many down as possible before falling in glorious combat in the name of The Cause?

Also, the entire final act set in Samoa feels self-indulgent in a way the brand, for all of its flaws, doesn't tend to feel.  The Rock and his brothers plan to use Mad-Max-style weapons and tactics against a cyberpunk death cult armed with what must be the lightest, weakest Black Hawk helicopter ever to go into production?  I don't know, man.  I mentioned the brand often blurring the lines between character and actor, and to be fair, The Rock/Hobbs lead his daughter's sport team in a traditional war dance in F8, but still.

And speaking of The Fate of the Furious, in that movie, Hobbs and Shaw had to grudgingly work together, and in the process, learned to respect each other.  During the scene in the secret government vehicle facility known as Toy Shop, Hobbs reads Shaw's file, learning how Deckard's acts of selfless heroism saved the lives of his military team and earned him a medal.  So how'd Shaw end up a criminal?  The same way Hobbs himself ended up being accused of treason -- the two military men were used up and spat out by their countries.  They're more alike than they want to admit, and Hobbs reacts in anger when Shaw is seemingly killed during the New York battle.  Hobbs and Shaw have put their differences behind them in the previous movie, so this movie pretending their rivalry has somehow escalated even further than it was then they first met doesn't really make sense.  Sure, this movie wouldn't be as much fun without their savage smack-talk, but it feels like something's missing here.

All things considered, they have crafted a thoroughly-enjoyable buddy-action movie with spectacular stunts, some great writing, the right amount of over-the-top hilarity, and the ever-important theme of family.  Both characters of Hobbs and Shaw technically started as villains, and I'm still unhappy about Shaw canonically murdering my favourite F&F character, and even if the movie didn't have the strong writing, pacing, and technical elements that it does, the appeal of The Rock and Statham would still be enough to carry Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw.  As it stands, it's an exhilarating laugh-out-loud action comedy that seriously delivers on the brand's strengths.  It's a shame they couldn't get the entire crew back to make this a proper numbered installment (we'll see what Furious 9 brings), but don't let your enjoyment or disdain for the Fast brand prevent you from catching this balls-through-the-wall action experience.

I think that's pretty much all I can think to say about it right now.  But, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them, and I'll tell you all about it when I see you again.

Ride or die, Family.

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