After nine “Fast & Furious” movies, the death of death can be proclaimed. The idea of everlasting rest lost all meaning in a series in which individual characters die, only to reappear in the next movie. So, the protest by fans ahead of “Hobbs & Shaw” is one of the weird ones. This time the anger is about the morphing into a hero of the nasty piece of work who killed Han, the people’s favorite. Screenwriter Chris Morgan was even called upon to address the issue in an Entertainment Weekly interview, and instead of promising that Han could always be brought back, he promised justice.
The fans’ protest is certainly ridiculous, and it’s definitely difficult to find the promised justice in the new film, but the issue illustrates the success and the transformations undergone by the “Fast & Furious” series on a winding, unpredictable route. It’s been 18 years since Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker starred in an affable, unpretentious action movie about tough thieves and fast cars on the streets of Los Angeles. Since then the series has inflated to vast dimensions that no one could have foreseen. Diverse modes of transportation, from planes to submarines, have joined the cars, while the plot has become a series of spy games laden with special effects. Something like James Bond, only with a lot less sophistication and a lot more cars overturning in low gear. In other words: the world according to Vin Diesel.
The new, ninth episode in the series, “Hobbs & Shaw,” constitutes a turning point in that it departs from the plotline. This Diesel-less spinoff is actually the launch for an independent series. The producers have been planning for some time to branch out and create a kind of cinematic universe akin to that of Marvel Studios, in which several plotlines run in parallel and merge when needed. The role has been assigned to two existing protagonists: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays agent Luke Hobbs for the fifth time, while Jason Statham reprises for the fourth time the role of Deckard Shaw, the villain who atones for his sins. The ground was prepared in the previous film, “Fast & Furious 8,” when Hobbs and Shaw were featured in a subplot set in prison, an homage to buddy comedies. Behind the scenes, a highly publicized dispute broke out between Johnson and Diesel, which ended in a rupture. “Hobbs & Shaw” thus became a kind of divorce settlement between the two big stars, with Johnson leaving home but getting custody over Statham.
Although the new plotline rests on the previous dynamics between Shaw and Hobbs, prior acquaintance with the series is not really necessary before viewing the new movie. In an excellent opening action scene, perhaps the best in the film, a beautiful MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby, “The Crown”) fights off a rabble of criminals led by Brixton (Idris Elba), who is something of a cross between human and machine. A struggle over a lethal virus that is liable to destroy humanity, yada yada yada, leaves Brixton emptyhanded, even as the agent disappears and goes underground.
It’s here, in a split screen, that the two mutually loathing protagonists, Hobbs and Shaw, enter the picture. Cooperation between security agencies in the United States and Britain couples them again in a new assignment: to locate the agent before Brixton can get his hands on the virus. Her surname is also Shaw, as she’s the sister of the British protagonist. After this, one chase follows another, one explosion triggers the next, and the two protagonists engage in nonstop verbal sparring.
Laws of physics
Along with the refreshing novelty of Vin Diesel’s disappearance, “Hobbs & Shaw” seems like a natural continuation of the series. The choice of David Leitch to direct looked intriguing at first, given the distinctive style of action he displayed as co-director in the first “John Wick” and his solo work in “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2.” However, in Hollywood, producers apparently really do outrank the director, whose imprint is visible only occasionally. Leitch’s skill in directing creative physical action is on show in an impressive battle sequence that takes place on ropes in a skyscraper. Most of the time, though, Leitch is called on simply to provide the fast and furious merchandise veteran fans expect. Fast driving, grandiose action and visual effects are the main dish.
Indeed, the “Fast & Furious” audience expects the action it’s grown accustomed to, in which the laws of physics and sound logic are laid to one side. It’s a world in which men with lots of muscle and not much hair can pull a helicopter with a cable and in which no blow hurts. With everyone falling down and getting up like characters in a Bugs Bunny movie, Brixton becomes the perfect villain. Elba plays a soldier who’s undergone technological upgrading, including eyes that give him a gaze like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator.” Displaying abysmal seriousness and giving a superb performance, Elba justifies the “black Superman” label he’s given in the movie.
Still, “Hobbs & Shaw” sets itself apart as a separate series owing to a number of key differences from the eight previous movies in the series. The jesting tone and the light spirit tip the scales in favor of a buddy comedy. The pair of protagonists spend two hours exchanging insults, some of them funny, most not.
In any event, this looks like a deliberate ploy aimed at the sense of humor of a younger audience than before. That goes hand in hand with the nonsensical action, which suggests that even though “Fast & Furious” is targeting youth in body and spirit, “Hobbs & Shaw” is a nod and a wink to children. Yet for that very reason it transmits more smoothly the major message that runs through the whole series, in which conservative values of family override all else.
With revenues totaling $5 billion – even before the new film – “Fast & Furious” is already one of the 10 most profitable franchises in movie history. The newborn universe will almost certainly expand. “Hobbs & Shaw” devotes no little screen time to establishing characters who are not needed but who are clearly intended to play roles in future movies. Even now the producers are working on a new episode in the main series, aiming for a release next summer, and a completely different spinoff starring an unknown woman.
As a standalone picture, “Hobbs & Shaw” fulfills its complex assignment of preparing the ground for a cinematic universe without undermining excessively the plot of the existing movie. Although it’s far from clear that there is any need for this universe, that’s the reality and the movie theaters will get used to it. Amid the logic of “Fast & Furious,” which tries to compete (but can’t really match the quality) with series such as “James Bond” or “Mission: Impossible,” the new entry, “Hobbs & Shaw” can be seen as a likable addition, fanciful and geared to children, that’s superior to most of the previous episodes.