Starring and produced by The Rock’s ego

The Fast & Furious franchise has always been a delicate balancing act. Why exactly has it become one of our most enduring and beloved non-Disney properties? It has to do with the combination of the outsized action which entirely eschews physics or the fragility of the human body along with the melodramatic gas pedal of postmodern family dynamics being slammed onto the floor at full throttle. We love the soap opera elements of this series as much as we love the gas guzzling race and chase scenes. There’s also an undeniable cross cultural appeal wherein a wide array of heritages and subcultures are represented in a casual way that becomes crucial to the broad appeal (and ultimate quality) of the films.

While I wasn’t one to shun the mere existence of a spinoff, especially one starring action stalwarts Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham as Hobbs and Shaw, ultimately the tried and true Fast & Furious formula did feel incorrectly balanced here. Much has been made of Shaw’s turn from villain to hero in this series, especially because he killed a beloved character in an earlier installment and none of the work has been done to provide justice for that character. There’s also been real life conflict between stars Dwayne Johnson and series headliner Vin Diesel to such a degree that they’ll likely never appear together on screen ever again. So both Hobbs and Shaw bring a little bit of tension to this spin-off, whether here in the real world or in cannon. Many will protest the film’s existence on those grounds alone. As it turns out, it seems Johnson’s spat with Diesel may have been the larger factor here in causing Hobbs & Shaw to feel off kilter.

In this latest installment, Vanessa Kirby’s Hattie Shaw is introduced as a tough and capable secret agent of some kind who comes in contact with self proclaimed “bad guy” Brixton (Idris Elba). When Hattie injects a virus into her system that Brixton was attempting to steal, and then eludes capture, the clock is set for an epic showdown. Hobbs and Shaw each have a handler that calls them in to save the world, and they’re told they have to do it together. There’s a very Tango & Cash vibe going on where the two beefed up super agents clash and spout insults at each other throughout, which is of course a continuation of their dynamic together in the 8th Fast/Furious movie and the kernel of the idea for this film. Hattie is Deckard Shaw’s sister, and their mother (Helen Mirren) is a part of this installment too. Since “The Family” of Fast & Furious fame is nowhere to be found in this spin-off, Hobbs’ daughter and even his Samoan family must be introduced because without family, there is no Fast & Furious. Writer Chris Morgan has largely been the architect of this ever-expanding franchise for the last several films and while he injects much of the same obligatory expressions of deep loyalty and brotherhood here, it largely falls flat as the reality is The Family as we’ve come to know and love them just isn’t along for the ride this time.

To be clear, Vanessa Kirby and Idris Elba are in fact wonderful additions to the character roster. Hattie is so tough and capable she catches Hobbs’ eye and manages to feel largely like her own character with some agency and competence, while also becoming a love interest. The Rock has built a career on largely sex-less roles so it almost feels novel to see Hattie turn Hobbs’ [meat]head a little bit. Brixton doesn’t really work as a character on the page, per se, as he’s got a whole lot of baggage and backstory to vomit out in order to ret-con him into the mythology of these films. He’s an old friend of Shaw’s who managed to turn Hattie against Deckard some years back, get killed by Deckard, and then somehow become this weirdly evangelistic super soldier trying to recruit more people to becoming machine-enhanced super men. Elba absolutely knows what movie he is in and swaggers and slings one-liners through the whole thing. He’s easily the highlight of the film even if his motivations and character beats are weak.

But back to that tricky but time tested Fast & Furious formula. It’s quite poorly calibrated here. Hobbs & Shaw is produced by The Rock. It stars The Rock. Its mere existence feels like a flex perpetrated by The Rock. Not only does Dwayne Johnson star and produce, he brings many of his best buddies along for the ride, infuses more ego into the dialog and story beats than ever before, and almost all of it feels like a juvenile display of his own Hollywood ascendance. I say this as a general fan of his who is beginning to tire of the slavish adherence to a squeaky clean brand.

Director David Leitch and his action company 87Eleven have been absolutely revolutionizing action cinema in Hollywood since they exploded with John Wick. Anything they’re involved with, I’m going to want to see. They’re that good. Sadly, the action here feels largely weightless and not particularly engaging. A key ingredient of the Fast & Furious formula is those over the top set pieces, indeed. However, Hobbs & Shaw presents ludicrous set pieces devoid of logic and physics, much as its predecessors do, but forgets to inject them with urgency or creativity. Brixton’s AI motorcycle is about the only cool new creative visual flourish or new idea at play here. It feels like perhaps Leitch was simply hamstrung by the constraints of the formula.

There’s also a really jarring sense of flow to Hobbs & Shaw. It’s painfully long at 2 hours and 15 minutes. That’s a big mistake as loads of that runtime could be lost without a trace. But much of the length comes from these extended comedy bits that did occasionally have me chuckling, but really broke up the sense of urgency and deflated the stakes of the film. Hattie’s life is a ticking clock as the virus within her will eventually kill her and then the entire world. But yet we’ve routinely got time to riff and zing and trade extended barbs. That unbearable tension audiences the world over felt in the final act of Mission: Impossible — Fallout? Yeah, there’s nothing even remotely comparable here. The comedy is way too juiced up and the thrills are way too spread out for Hobbs & Shaw to feel like anything more than a massive, meat-headed distraction.

This feels like The Rock’s movie. His star has risen to such heights that he was able to more or less hijack a multi-billion dollar franchise and squeeze it into his own image and likeness. Writer Chris Morgan injected as many family values into this thing as he could, but none of it feels full without the rest of The Family along for the ride. A flat action movie smashed up against misfiring comedy pre-occupied entirely with juvenile banter does not a can’t-miss ninth installment of a franchise make.

And I’m Out.

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