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Hobbs & Shaw drives the Fast & Furious franchise into a dead end

The latest installment in the mighty series feels like an empty list of action movie ingredients.

The Rock and Jason Statham point fingers at each other. Universal Pictures
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Many movie franchises have tried to be the next James Bond — including, arguably, the current run of James Bond films. But it occurred to me about 50 minutes into Hobbs & Shaw, while watching Jason Statham and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pilot a McLaren supercar under not one, but two rolling big rigs, that no other franchise to date really captures the feel of a classic Bond film like Fast & Furious.

At this point in the life of the franchise, the film formula contains almost as many items on a Bond checklist as Bond itself. A showy cache of high-tech gadgets and higher-tech weapons? Check. Megalomaniacal villains with no real underlying motive beyond “evil?” Check. Rapid globe-hopping through a cinematic tourist brochure of glossy international resorts. Hot chicks and over-the-top masculinity. Spy stuff. Check, check, check. And, of course, oh-so-many fast luxury cars — a big check.

Hobbs & Shaw, the first film in the franchise to depart completely from Vin Diesel’s character and focus on his two frenemies instead, ticks so many of these boxes that I started to wonder if the whole franchise had been a sneaky Bond meta-parody all along. This film even features eternal Bond bridesmaid Idris Elba, this time playing the film’s Bond villain equivalent.

The main ingredient that the Fast & Furious films share with classic Bond films is also the main thing that keeps fans returning to them both despite their flaws: an underlying sense of levity. Vintage Bond movies were goofy, self-aware, and entirely over the top. They were hilarious, improbable, completely self-obsessed, and often full of moments that broke the fourth wall and referenced the sheer extravagance of it all.

While the current iteration of Bond films, as well as other contenders to the action franchise throne like Mission: Impossible, frequently become mired in their own self-importance, Fast and Furious manages to float perpetually above such petty concerns as “plot” and “consequences.” Rather than giving a toss about elevating the action genre through serious themes, angsty heroes, and trope subversion, The Fast and The Furious instead consistently focuses on found family, homoerotic male bonding, and blowing shit up. What else, these films perpetually ask, do you really need?

Until now, my answer to Fast & Furious has usually been: not a damn thing. But with Hobbs & Shaw, the quirky “James Bond as a fun Disney movie” formula that brought this franchise its legions of fans finally begins to feel tired.

Hobbs & Shaw follows the classic Fast & Furious pattern of turning your worst enemies into your best homoerotic action hero partners

No knowledge of the previous films is required to enjoy this one, but it helps to know that the films all have a tradition to which Hobbs & Shaw faithfully adheres.

The time-honored Way of the Fast and the Furious is the Way of Enemies Becoming Friends. Despite their characters’ history throughout the series, Hobbs & Shaw isn’t about the Rock’s character, Luke Hobbs, facing off against Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw. That’s because Fast & Furious never lets enemies stay enemies, not when there’s Brotherhood to be had. Shaw, who we first met three films ago, was once one of the series’ nebulously bad guys, but he rapidly became a nebulously so-so guy, and now is firmly a good guy.

Don’t overthink any of this: It is simply the way of the franchise that every enemy who sticks around long enough becomes enamored with the Fast & Furious lifestyle — which originally involved stealing cars to thwart bad guys and now involves international biowarfare espionage (look, it’s complicated) — and is assimilated into the series’ extended found family. So Hobbs now begrudgingly teams up with his former enemy Shaw, much as he himself once begrudgingly teamed up with his former enemy turned best friend Dom, who originally begrudgingly teamed up with his former enemy turned homoerotic soulmate, Brian (RIP, Paul Walker).

This time around, Shaw has to save his little sister Hattie (The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby) after she becomes embroiled with an evil high-tech conspiracy to infect the world’s population with a weird lethal virus. (This campaign, incidentally, is spearheaded by a character presented only as a giant sound wave, like a Winamp equalizer come to maniacal life.) Hattie injects herself with the virus’s only viable dose, which apparently works on a completely illogical timer that gives her a few days to survive. She’s pursued, however, by the Terminator-like Idris Elba, an old enemy of Shaw’s who’s been brought back from the dead and souped up with a computerized transhumanist brain. Again, don’t overthink this.

Hobbs wants to save the world, so when he and Shaw are paired up to take out the virus before it’s deployed, they wind up bickering and bromancing their way through various action sequences. These include endless car-motorcycle chases, a couple of obligatory scenes in which a sports car smashes through a building window several stories up, and one sequence in which a group of Hobbs’ family and friends all chain their cars together in an attempt to keep a helicopter from leaving the ground. Again, you don’t come to these movies for logic.

Fast & Furious action sequences are usually top-notch, and this film is no exception: Most sequences are entertaining and well-staged, and Elba is magnetic enough to make us actually care when he perpetually survives every car thrown at him. (Please, someone, get this man his own action franchise.) But the movie’s climactic sequence is essentially CGI’d out of most of its emotional realism — and that holds true for most of its thematic beats as well.

Despite treading familiar ground, the film’s parts don’t quite make up a whole

The Fast & Furious films usually emphasize the importance of found family, but this film departs from that to frame both Hobbs and Shaw as needing literal family reconciliations — Shaw with his little sister (and their mom, played by Helen Mirren in a saucy but meaningless cameo), and Hobbs with his brother (the ever-reliable Cliff Curtis), who’s angered by Hobbs’ status as the family prodigal son.

Parts of the film are filmed in Hawaii (meant to represent Samoa, Hobbs’s home), and these sequences are lush, verdant, and meant to evoke heartfelt family bonds; those efforts fall flat. Earlier iterations of the franchise revolved around Vin Diesel’s merry band of diverse, tight-knit rogue car drivers. Whenever he declared that a member of the group was “family,” you felt it in your gut.

Hobbs & Shaw overtly positions the Rock as the successor to Diesel’s legacy as the franchise’s central figure, and this works up to a point. The Rock is the kind of character who bleeds sincerity so fully that he can deliver lines like “The island will provide, brother” and “When the fate of the world is at stake, it becomes my business” with earnest urgency, without ever seeming like a caricature of himself.

Hobbs & Shaw does indulge in plenty of meta-parody at his expense — an early split-screen shows The Rock’s Hobbs lifting weights alongside Statham’s Shaw, who’s lifting a pub tap lever instead — but it’s always loving. Next to the Rock, Statham is atypically understated, and his cynical softness works remarkably well.

But none of it works to make the film feel particularly deep or compelling in the end. The Fast & Furious franchise is full of countless moments where shamelessly over-the-top pathos is saved by tongue-in-cheek whimsey, and where shamelessly ludicrous plots are saved by the film’s appeal to heartwarming (found) family values.

But without more of those found family members actually being present to remind us what really matters to these characters, the franchise’s familiar ingredients start to feel hollow. The chemistry between Kirby and the Rock is nonexistent. Cameos from Kevin Hart and Ryan Reynolds are fun, but they last too long and seem inserted solely to make up for the lack of appearances from regular franchise characters. And though the film checks off all those aforementioned action franchise boxes, after a while, it starts to feel like we’re watching a movie that’s been constructed by algorithm.

More than any other action franchise, Fast & Furious relies on its sincerity; it needs a strong emotional core to survive. The quest to shift the focus away from Diesel and onto the Rock and Statham should have worked better than it does: both actors are great individually, and that might be enough for many of the series’ fans. But in a franchise that’s always opted to tug heartstrings and reinforce unabashed love between manly men, Hobbs & Shaw just doesn’t sell us on, well, Hobbs and Shaw. In the end, their brotherhood just doesn’t ignite.

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