Extended film franchises may have become de rigueur at American cinemas, but, as Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, illustrates, franchise films still struggle to overcome the bloat of increasingly preposterous stakes and interwoven plot arcs.
Marking the ninth entry into the Fast & Furious canon (ahead of the Vin Diesel-led Fast & Furious 9, which arrives next year) Hobbs & Shaw presents itself as a buddy-cop heist flick driven by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as federal lawman Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham as disgraced British special forces operative Deckard Shaw. Tasked with saving the world from a deadly super-virus — which just so happens to be embedded in the body of fellow spy Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), Deckard’s sister — the titular duo must find an antidote for Hattie, prevent the virus from destroying mankind, and battle an army of leather-clad henchmen led by super-soldier Brixton (Idris Elba).
And so Hobbs and Shaw bicker and banter their way from Los Angeles to London to Samoa, fighting their way to an innumerable and inconsequential body count of Brixton’s lackeys. The mix of frenetic action and reluctant-partner punchlines is characteristic of Fast & Furious movies, and a handful of stellar cameos inject a potent dose of comic relief. But Hobbs & Shaw still feels like a spin-off rather than an entity all its own. As much as the plot smacks of 2000’s Mission: Impossible 2, the stunt choreography never rises to the level of the M:I series’ increasingly jaw-dropping scenes of derring-do — to say nothing of recent Fast & Furious spectaculars.
Scaling down the stakes and the stunts doesn’t diminish much of the fun in watching Hobbs & Shaw. Johnson and Statham each are reliably charismatic action headliners, and their repartee as foils has been a highlight of recent Fast & Furious films. Kirby’s Hattie is the glue holding the two clashing male egos together — and more often than not, the one actually saving the day — and the chemistry among all three actors is compelling, even as clunky writing muddies key moments.
Still, this sidebar feature can’t help but feel like the product of Johnson’s long-rumored feud with original Fast & Furious star Vin Diesel. The pair reportedly didn’t film any scenes together for 2017’s The Fate of the Furious, and Johnson’s character is conspicuously absent from the forthcoming Fast & Furious 9.
Since its debut, the franchise has snowballed from a charming parallel to Point Break, with import cars instead of surfboards, into a sprawling ensemble series with global set pieces and truly breathtaking stunt work, more closely mirroring Mission: Impossible’s mix of action and espionage. The challenge each film faces to outdo its predecessors rises with each installment.
To that end, Hobbs & Shaw’s relatively down-to-earth approach offers a bit of relief from the series proper, but still adds little to make itself an essential component of the canon.
The movie struggles to find its footing beyond scenes that showcase its heroes’ swapping insults or Johnson flexing his muscles. It lacks the surprising twists of a great spy movie and the suspense of a compelling heist flick. Its action choreography is strong, but pales in comparison to scenes Johnson and Statham have shared in past Fast movies. To wit, the prison escape in The Fate of the Furious is an all-time great action sequence — even relative to genre highlights like John Wick or The RAID: Redemption. Hobbs & Shaw offers nothing of the sort.
Still, as long as anything even adjacent to the series keeps turning profits, it seems unlikely that we’ll see fewer sequels and spin-offs. (This, despite claims that Fast 10 will be the final entry.).
There are certainly worse ways to pass a couple hours than Hobbs & Shaw. But franchise films, like old fighters, often don’t know when to step aside. The audience decides that for them, and movies like this one seem unlikely to keep them in their seats.