Hobbs and Shaw (2019) by David Leitch
Review by Logan Kenny
The mythos of Fast and Furious is one of family. It is the lifeblood of the series, the beating heart of a franchise spanning twenty years and an wide assortment of cast and crew. The family at the centre felt unbreakable – a key unit of figures that would stay put regardless of conflict or the changes that escalating from racing to action extravaganzas would implement. When Paul Walker died, it felt like a loss of someone we loved. The cast and crew lost a member of their own makeshift family, a person that they knew for over a decade, someone that was there everyday with them filming scenes of intense action and emotional intimacy. To be so close to someone and come to the realisation that they’re never coming back, no matter how hard you dream or hope, is crushing. For all of those like myself who felt a personal attachment to the series and used some of the entries as a way to connect to a new type of family, it wrecked us as well. Furious 7 was a goodbye to him, a way to keep the family and his memories alive. It was an overwhelming montage of past experiences: the beauty of his smile, the way his blonde hair flowed in the wind, and the way his and Vin’s eyes seemed to meet each other like there was a connection beyond simple friendship. It culminated everything in the series, bringing all the angles and past characters together while introducing new ones. It raised the stakes action-wise while keeping the focus personal and emotional, it cared about keeping the legacy of family and personality alive, and it gave us an ending that made sense after 14 years and an unbearably devastating loss. It affected me so much that I can’t watch or think about the film without starting to tear up. It’s hard to imagine a better sendoff to a performer.
However, it wasn’t the end. It was never going to be, in the modern climate of filmmaking. Furious 7, perhaps boosted by the public outpouring of grief towards Paul Walker, made over a billion dollars worldwide and cemented that the series was never going to go anywhere. They would keep existing, regardless of creative intent or cast members, and would keep going until the money dried up. The Fate of the Furious was generally well received but controversial, and seemed to remove the core of the series (aside from a few moments) in favour of amplifying the already ludicrous action sequences. Hobbs and Shaw is the newest installment of the series, and the first to have none of the original cast of the first film here at all (as Vin cameos at the end of Tokyo Drift). It has been marketed as a straight up odd-couple buddy comedy and is from the director of soulless studio junk like Atomic Blonde and the notoriously terrible Deadpool 2. It has expanded the mythology of the series to include evil eugenics plots, cyborgs, and an extended-universe-style presentation with suggestions of a larger evil as well as mid/post credits sequences a la the MCU. On paper, it sounds fun, but it’s antithetical to the melancholic overwhelmingly humanistic The Fast and the Furious, and a more hollow version of the later installments made by Justin Lin and James Wan. I was worried it’d be all action, no soul. Machines just for the sake of them, constant escalation and destruction in service of quips and punchlines. I was still excited, considering that it’s my favourite franchise in modern Hollywood and stars the man I’ve devoted a podcast to in the leading role, but there were doubts, and I was afraid that this would be the first Fast film I couldn’t bring myself to defend.
There’s an interesting dichotomy that runs through Hobbs and Shaw, the weakest entry in the franchise since Fast & Furious from 2009. It is at once, the exact thing I was afraid it would be, while in turn one of the most moving entries in the franchise. It feels constantly torn between the image of the series that studios have pushed into being in the absence of Paul Walker, and the deep commitment to empathy and the importance of whatever family is left in your life. It’s the first film in the series where the two leads have active disdain towards each other and work against each other’s goals for at least half of the film. Even when they’re working together, they’re undermining and trying to outclass one another, which is an immediate departure from the non-toxic, openly supportive friendships that the series is built upon. The Fast and Furious series, to me, has always been a space where masculinity isn’t the prison it often is in the real world, where men are allowed to nakedly feel and confess their loves for each other without being demonised or dismissed. It is a space of utopian masculinity, where men can fit into the performative images of what maleness apparently is without rejecting women’s roles in these spaces and without descending into toxicity. It’s a series where conflict amongst men ends with them sharing a Corona and reflecting on the pleasures of life, where arch enemies become allies and family is eternal. Hobbs and Shaw does eventually come to this conclusion, but is somehow too blunt and too arduous in getting to that destination. Statham and Johnson have electric chemistry with each other and are both at their physical and comedic peaks when desperately trying to cover up their admiration and respect for one another, instead of outright sparring verbally in a series of middle-school-level insults. Similar to the rest of the film, the portrayal of their relationship becoming more about frustration and eventually outright adoration improves the longer it goes on, but it did make me miss the soulful bantering and playground style bickering of Gibson and Walker from 2 Fast 2 Furious. There is a lack of that family between the two; even at the end, they feel less like constantly interconnected beings who’ve learned to appreciate each other, and more just two guys who’ve learned not to murder each other. This is not an innate criticism, and would likely stand on its own two feet without the background of the series – but in a Fast and Furious movie, I want to feel enamoured with the chemistry of the people on screen. It feels like watching a romance movie where the couple doesn’t have heat: they can be as hilarious and interesting as humanly possible, but the spark that makes you transcend into another realm isn’t quite there. This helps explain why the film is less homoerotic in spirit than the other 7, which are practically Hollywood romances with nitrous.
However, the acting from both men is good, Johnson tries a little too hard in some of the more openly comedic sequences but is utilised perfectly in solo duels with Statham and especially in heavily physical action. Johnson’s background as a professional wrestler comes into play often, using his size as a strength of storytelling and being choreographed to fight differently from Statham due to the differences of their bodies. A sequence where he tries to take down Vanessa Kirby without physically harming her is arguably the most interesting way a film has ever shot his body outside of Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain. Statham is the better actor of the two; his smaller size and vulnerable eyes make even the least compelling segments of the film captivating. His background in martial arts makes for setpieces that do make you suspend your disbelief whenever he kicks men in the chest and takes down men much larger and more prepared than he is. There is a logic to his movement and an elegance to his destruction, which is a major reason why he remains one of the greatest modern action stars. The focuses on different sorts of physicality in between the more garish and outlandish action sequences is one of the best parts of the film. Leitch, for all my issues with his amateurish and generic presence behind the camera, does utilise his stuntman background to implement distinct and character fitting action sequences. Hobbs and Shaw don’t fight the same and the film never tries to force them into a set in-house style of simulated combat, which is a welcome refresher from a series of blockbusters that expect supersoldiers to throw the same punches as aliens.
The strange thing about Hobbs and Shaw is that the plastic bombastic action sequences (that lack the craft or presence of Wan’s Furious 7 and even The Fate of the Furious) didn’t bother me. The further the film went on, the more I started enjoying myself and not caring as much about the various issues it had. I was skeptical once the eugenics angle came into play, especially considering my visceral disgust towards the handling of a similar plotline in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but I appreciated deeply how little of an argument Idris Elba’s character is given and that there’s no mention of the racist concept of overpopulation. Every time genocide is brought up as a justification to make the human race stronger, Johnson and Statham immediately shut the Nazi rhetoric down without a hint of hearing any reasonings behind it. It is the best way they could have utilised an overplayed idea and is strengthened by one of the most charismatic villainous turns of the year by Idris Elba. He’s hilarious and threatening and is allowed to express the fullest nature of his venomous screen presence, a true bastard who relishes in adminstering suffering and boosting his perceptions of greatness. The egotism on display is jarring and makes every appearance he makes refreshing and invigorating, especially in the bigger action sequences. There’s a moment where Leitch just straight up steals the best shot from modern classic Tron: Legacy, when the protagonist’s bike creates itself in slow motion before immediately jolting back into normal motion as the bike adjusts to being in its new reality. The way Idris’s body reacts to the bike shifting and mutates across the screen made me delighted that blockbuster filmmakers were casting real actors and ripping off good filmmaking techniques for once!
Hobbs and Shaw’s more comedic nature makes for difficulties at points, but the ostensible stupidity makes the writers even more bold with embracing the fullest extent of the madness. This is a flick where Idris has cybernetic implants that can see the probability of being hit like he’s the VATS system from Fallout, where Eddie Marsan lights up nameless goons with a flamethrower while squealing in a horrible Russian accent and where helicopters defy the laws of physics and reality in order to service the vivid imaginations of your average 8 year old. The longer it goes, the more I appreciated how much it cares about smashing together whatever idea they think could be cool, even if it’s not executed in the best possible way.
The dichotomy I mentioned earlier – how the film is conflicted between the new and the old Fast and Furious – comes fully into play in the third act, which is what truly sold me on liking the film instead of allowing my complaints to overwhelm. Unlike the rest of the series, which is more about creating your own version of family that matters just as much as blood, this is about reconnecting with your heritage, the family who you grew up with and who the memories of childhood are plagued by. Everything in Samoa is an improvement: the colour palette becomes brighter and more luscious in comparison to some of the washed out greys and concrete filters in earlier setpieces. The action sequences are more cohesive and enjoyable at simple fight scenes, instead of being appreciated just for the ridiculousness. Most importantly, it’s where it starts to feel like the series that brought me comfort for so long, where I realised that it hadn’t let go of its roots. The idea and presence of family is the constant in this franchise, and no matter how far it drifts from the original racers and the old unit, there is always that beating heart of love and admiration and the importance of having people that love you.
A quick personal note for a major reason these final moments really spoke to me: one of Dwayne Johnson’s family members (in the movie and in real life) is the professional wrestler Roman Reigns (also known as Joe Anoai.) Roman Reigns is one of my favourite performers in any medium and has brought me dozens of influential and emotionally mesmerising memories, as well as helping me to bond with my dad over wrestling. He is someone I’m completely enraptured by, who seems like one of the most genuinely kind people in the creative industries, who does his job better than pretty much anyone in spite of all the vitriol that has been thrown his way. Last year, when he was the world champion in WWE, he announced that he had leukemia in his 20s before he started professional wrestling and that it was the toughest period of his life. He then announced that the cancer had come back and that he would have to give up the belt he’d worked so hard to achieve, and that he didn’t know when he’d be back. I was devastated and cried a lot in the following weeks, I was frightened that I’d never see him healthy again, that the worst possibility would become reality. To see him come back earlier this year, just as good as ever and now cancer-free, was unspeakably beautiful, and seeing him here surrounded by people that love him in his ancestral homeland showing off what he can do to millions of people who would never have seen him otherwise moved me to tears. He shot this movie when he was still recovering; he got to be around his family and still had the strength to do some of the moves he’s most famous for. During the worst period of his life, he was able to find some relief and beauty in being with the people that love him and got to create something beautiful in the process. I might be biased, but as soon as I saw him give a spear to and silently interact with his cousin, I knew that all of this movie was worth it for me, no matter anything that preceded it.
I think it’s beautiful how this film treats and respects Samoa. The love this has for the islands and the people and especially the culture feels so absent in imperialist digitalised hack work. It might be blatant, but the resistance to the corporate machine being traditional Samoan weaponry and the bonds between family fucking ruled, and made me so goddamn happy to be in the theatre seeing it go down. The other key moment of the final act is something else that felt traditionally Fast and Furious: a ridiculous stunt involving cars that represents undying devotion and love to the people in your life that matter. A group of men, joining their cars together, in what seems like a suicide mission, putting their lives and machines on the line in a mad attempt to protect a new member of their family. They drive together, brothers in arms always, whether lying or dying. Life matters because of who you’ve got in it with you – the memories and experiences you create along the way. They’ll ride together till they can’t anymore.
We will always have the first 7. To me, that was the canon ending of the series. That’s where it should have ended, and in my heart, the arcs and character journeys came to their natural conclusion when Dom and Brian drove off in different directions for the final time. I’ve come to accept that everything else is just a bonus – a special after the show ends, something with the iconography and heart that makes you feel emotional and happy for two hours. A part of me wishes that it could have been like it was when Paul was still here, a series where nothing mattered more than the families that occupied the screens. The more time I spend away from it, the more glad I am that we had those perfect movies and experiences, a legacy that can never die. But sometimes, in a tough world, it’s enough to just have a fun movie that makes your day better. Somedays it’s all you really need. I miss you Paul.