The first Fast & Furious was about an undercover cop chasing a thief who robbed trucks.

The new Fast & Furious spinoff starts — it starts! — with a bulletproof man riding a magic transforming motorcycle chasing a woman who has just injected herself with a programmable virus capable of killing all life on Earth.

This isn’t so much progress as it is escalation of the kind Commissioner Gordon warns about at the end of Batman Begins when he explains that the emergence of a man dressed as a bat will bring other, weirder characters out of the Gotham City woodwork. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is technically the ninth film in a franchise that has left simple truck heists in the literal and metaphorical dust. The big stunt in the original Fast & Furious was a car sliding under a moving big rig. In Hobbs & Shaw a car drifts under two big rigs traveling in opposite directions. Nothing less than the future of the world is at stake in this one, in a series of chases, fights, shootouts amidst the contentious relationship between the two mismatched title characters.

Hobbs and Shaw Fast and Furious

Dwayne Johnson is Hobbs, a burly DSS agent; supposedly the best tracker in the world. Jason Statham is Shaw, a suave spy whose exact allegiances are frankly a little murky; he killed one of the most beloved characters in the Fast franchise but now mostly stays on the side of the angels and ignores that heinous crime. The two first partnered together in The Fate of the Furious, where their Riggs and Murtaugh-esque rapport helped enliven that otherwise disappointing installment. This time they’re reluctantly paired again to find and save the woman with the mega-virus — who just so happens to be Shaw’s estranged sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby).

The “estranged” element is key. As any Fast and Furiologist will tell you, family — not gasoline or NOS, but finding and protecting your family — is the main fuel of this fictional universe. Hobbs has his own domestic baggage to deal with, too; 25 years ago he left his home on the island of Samoa under mysterious circumstances and never returned. If you have seen the Hobbs & Shaw trailer, you know his exile is not going to last much longer.

Their main adversaries work for an evil corporation named Etheon that’s preposterous even by Fast & Furious standards. This shadowy cabal wants what seemingly every movie bad guy wants these days: To wipe out most of humanity to avoid the environmental catastrophe that will doom the planet otherwise. Their primary operative is the aforementioned bulletproof guy on the physics-defying motorcycle — the thing is basically an Energon cube shy of being an actual Transformer. That’s Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), who proudly calls himself “Black Superman.” Based on the evidence onscreen, he’s not too far off. Enhanced with all kinds of robotic limbs and organs, he’s more than a match for the heroes, especially since the heroes can’t stand each other and refuse to work together.

Hobbs and Shaw

This is Buddy Movie 101 material, taken straight from the formula that’s dominated a healthy portion of action movies for the last decades. There can be pleasure, though, in a formula that’s followed with precision; there’s a reason these kinds of stories have worked for years when presented by the right people in front of and behind the camera. In this case you have Johnson and Statham, who are physically and emotionally mismatched in all the right ways. Their banter could use a little more snap — this kind of movie used to be rated R, mostly for much more amusingly evocative language — but the way these men embody their characters’ respective personalities makes for a dynamic series of visual contrasts and gags. And director David Leitch (Atomic BlondeDeadpool 2) nicely frames those gags with split screens and parallel-edited fight scenes where Hobbs and Shaw each try to achieve different goals at the same time.

It would be nice if Hobbs & Shaw had a bit less plot and a bit more humanity. Although co-writer Chris Morgan has been with the Fast & Furious franchise longer than almost anyone at this point, his script this time (co-written with Drew Pearce) occasionally forgets that the appeal of these movies is as much about hanging out with people we like as watching them do ridiculous stuff with cars. In Hobbs & Shaw, there are periods where the people feel like afterthoughts to the viral MacGuffin and various conspiracies. The action sequences are suitably spectacular, but none top the admirable lunacy of the tank chase in Fast & Furious 6 or the skydiving cars in Furious 7.

Still, it’s difficult to hate a movie where Dwayne Johnson earnestly spouts phrases like “dark web chatter about a programmable supervirus” and Samoan warriors give bad guys Samoan drops in the middle of a raging battlefield. And when Hobbs returns to Samoa, Hobbs & Shaw rediscovers that old Fast & Furious heart. At one point, Johnson delivers a speech that amounts to the message of the movie — and yes Hobbs & Shaw is very much a movie with a message — and it might be the most direct and sincere plea from an action hero to his audience since Steven Seagal used On Deadly Ground to petition his viewers to protect the environment.

Whether theatergoers make a concerted effort to change their lives as a result of a monologue given by The Rock in the ninth movie of a franchise about macho dudes in big cars is highly unlikely, but they’ll probably still have a reasonably good time receiving the message. In baseball there’s a statistic called “wins above replacement”; it measures the value of any given player on a team by comparing them to an average or “replacement-level player” at the same position. A pitcher with a WAR of 5.0 is worth five additional wins to his team. Hobbs & Shaw is the movie version of a replacement-level player. It is adequate, but not exceptional. It’s the baseline version of what one of these movies should be, now that they’re not about undercover cops chasing thieves anymore.

Additional Thoughts:
-There are lots of references to Shaw and Hattie’s childhood together, as well as a small supporting role for Helen Mirren as their mother. Oddly though, Shaw’s other brother Owen, played by Luke Evans, never comes up — even though his battle with Hobbs and the rest of the Fast & Furious family is what introduced Statham’s character to the franchise in the first place. I guess they didn’t want to remind viewers that Shaw was originally a super-villain who tried to kill Brian and Mia’s son now that he’s trading wisecracks with the Rock.

-If you’re a WWE fan, here’s what you need to know about WWE wrestler (and Dwayne Johnson cousin) Roman Reigns’ role: He has zero lines outside of a few war chants, and beats a guy up with his finishing move.


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