"Candy asses." It only took two words in an Instagram post to perhaps permanently tear asunder the core Fast and the Furious franchise and cast. The Rock aired out some grievances with unnamed male costars, and just like that, the fractures within the family were revealed—soon it came out that Vin Diesel & The Rock had refused to film anything together for the underwhelming eighth installment of the franchise, The Fate Of The Furious. Despite some unforgettable one-liners ("I WILL BEAT YOU LIKE A CHEROKEE DRUM"), something felt deeply off in that film. And for the first time since the majestic adrenaline-rush ride of Fast 5—the moment the franchise fully evolved from B-movies about car races and DVD thefts to action/heist/Bond-esque flicks starring nigh-impervious superheroes—it felt like the FF franchise could use a major shake-up.
Instead, we got a spin-off.
MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE LATEST ENTRY IN THE FAST & THE FURIOUS SAGA AHEAD
By far the best part of The Fate Of The Furious was the undeniable chemistry between The Rock's Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham's Wile E Coyote-esque Deckard Shaw. The bizarre rivalry/friendship that grew between The Rock and Statham in that film was electric—any given scene could end with them punching or kissing each other. So making a buddy film/action comedy that is a stealth romcom seemed like a logical, perhaps even brilliant, path for the franchise to take.
The main plot of that end result, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, is so proudly dumb and inconsequential, it feels silly recapping it, but here we go: a sinister tech company/cult called Etheon wants to enhance humans through technology, starting with self-proclaimed "Black Superman" Brixton Lore (Idris Elba, mostly wasted here). He can stop bullets with his hands, he has a telepathic relationship with his motorcycle, and you know he's a bad guy because in the first scene of the film, he introduces himself by saying, "I'm the bad guy." Who are we to doubt him?
In the opening of HOBBS & SHAW (seen in the trailer), Idris Elba is asked who he is. He responds, “Bad guy.” In doing so, he subverts that most sacred of storytelling tropes: the idea that every character is a good person in their own mind. In this Twitter essay I will (1/3825)
— David Chen (@davechensky) July 31, 2019
Lore wants to obtain some sort of magic virus, which is in the possession of MI6 agent Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby, who is so good in this, just as she was in Mission Impossible: Fallout, she deserves her own action series), who happens to be the estranged sister of Statham's Shaw. This leads to Shaw and Hobbs both being tasked with finding her and recovering the virus in 72 hours before the virus kills most of the population. Hilarity and gun violence ensues! Also: cross-continental trips, silly disguises, and enough bickering to fuel a new Lethal Weapon reboot.
Because in a lot of ways, that's what this movie really is: a propulsive, ass-kicking '80s buddy comedy with lots of zippy banter. It even has its equivalent of the classic training montage, complete with Michael Bay-worthy long-range camera shots (to be honest, this was probably my favorite part of the film). The movie feels more like part of director David Leitch's extended universe (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) than the Fast & Furious one, with some major surprise comedy cameos that have nothing to do with FF.
The tone in the first half of the film veers very close to outright self-awareness/self-parody, so much so that I actually wish it totally leaned into that instead of pulling back for the big action set pieces, which are fine if not as amazing as I hoped from the guy who directed John Wick. Leitch's best decisions when it comes to those: a manic chase down the side of a building early in the film, and disabling all the guns to force lots of hand-to-hand combat in the final big battle in Samoa.
Statham and The Rock still have fantastic chemistry together, even if the dialogue is often essentially stage direction read outloud, with the occasional laugh-out-loud groaner ("Brother, you may believe in machines, but we believe in people"). At their best, they almost have a vaudevillian snappiness to their repartee. The comedy can get too broad at times (see: those flashy cameos), but it's at its best when it leans into character-driven specificity and weirdness, like when someone literally hands The Rock a shirt to wear for that final battle.
for some reason I actually asked Leitch about this pic.twitter.com/CBoYnPsrUH
— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) July 31, 2019
The biggest problem is that this doesn't really feel like a Fast & Furious movie—the car racing, which has been de-emphasized throughout the films, is almost entirely obligatory here (there isn't a clever set piece like the remote-controlled cars scene from The Fate Of The Furious). There are no cameos from any of the rest of the FF family (except for Helen Mirren as Shaw's mother). And except for a one-liner or two (Hobbs bragging about saving the world four times), there are very few references to any of their FF history (especially weird since they ended the last movie as buds at a cookout). You really don't need to know anything about the FF universe to follow this film (but if you want to know, please refer to my thesis).
Altogether, this film instead feels like it desperately wants to be its own separate action franchise that just takes advantage of the audience love for its two very enjoyable leads—imagine if Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson played Thor and Valkyrie in Men In Black: International, but they never referenced Thor: Ragnarok, and it's kinda like that. Thankfully, it's at least better than that film.
And maybe that's because it retains one key thematic element of the FF franchise. There may be no Coronas or cookouts or Vin Diesel glowering at people, but Hobbs & Shaw does incorporate and emphasize the importance of family, one of the hallmarks of all the FF films. The FF series has always flourished because the characters all genuinely like spending time together despite being international fugitives, which in turn has made audiences love spending time with them even more. Fans will put up with reboots, confusing chronologies, soap opera plotlines, excursions to Tokyo, and even turning one of the biggest villains of the series into a hero (#JusticeForHan is a real hashtag) as long as they enjoy hanging out with them. The question now is whether people will want to spend more time with the extended Hobbs and Shaw clans without the rest of the FF family around.