It must be difficult being Vin Diesel. For two decades now he’s been working hard, turning in decent performances in mainly genre fare. The story of Riddick (with Vin as the eponymous Richard Riddick – Dick Riddick to his friends) was never quite as good as it could be. The XXX franchise was a mess. On top of that, throw in a bunch of forgettable films – anyone remember Babylon A.D. or The Last Witch Hunter? But he always had The Fast and the Furious universe, these films were his babies. And from 2011 onwards, the franchise exploded in popularity. They were silly, but they were good silly. They were some of the best action films out there. The cost of this franchise resurgence? A deal with the devil.
Ok, that’s an exaggeration. But in my opinion, Dwayne Johnson played a huge role in saving the franchise. His appearance in Fast Five was a big deal and seeing him and Vin go head-to-head was like if Stallone had gone up against Schwarzenegger in the eighties. But to Vin, he now had to share the limelight. And let’s be honest, Dwayne Johnson is like a mountain of charisma and likeability. The man is just charming and most importantly, it seems natural. Sure, you might not like his movies. But you’d be lying if you said you wouldn’t want to hang out with him. That doesn’t mean Vin doesn’t seem like a cool guy, but how could he compete with the appeal of The Rock? So it was only a matter of time until Johnson’s incredibly entertaining DSS agent Luke Hobbs got a spinoff. And coming along for the ride, Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw – the villain-turned-hero who killed Han, murdered a load of police officers and innocents, but who was eventually turned by the power of family. Buckle up.
Following on from the main instalments in the F&F franchise taking a sharp turn into spycraft and world-ending threats, Hobbs and Shaw doubles down. The eponymous bald heroes are recruited by the CIA (in two fun cameo moments) to stop an apocalyptic virus from falling into the hands of a “tech cult”. These two are the best equipped for the job apparently, because the virus is inside a person – Hobbs is the best tracker and Shaw is recruited because that walking doomsday weapon is his sister, played by Vanessa Kirby (who is shockingly younger than her big bro Deckard, despite the fact we see them playing together as children in the sepia-toned 1970s).
Hunting them down is Brixton, played by Idris Elba. He’s the enforcer for the tech baddies, and he is insane in this film. Clearly loving every second of screen time, Elba plays Brixton with real menace. In one of the crazier ideas of the series (which is saying something) Brixton is a full-on cyberpunk villain – filled head-to-toe with augments. The coolest are his Deus Ex-esque cyber eyes which let him see through walls and anticipate attacks. It’s very silly, but this has always been the genius of these films. Despite the increasing levels of lunacy, everyone involved makes it work. You believe in the characters and the world, even when they’re doing crazy things that defy every single scientific law. It has an internal logic that holds all the threads together, even when they’re threatening to snap under the weight of explosions, testosterone, and shaved heads.
It also doesn’t hurt that it’s funny and surprisingly kind-hearted. I say surprisingly, but if you’ve seen any film in the series before you won’t be surprised by the focus on family. But it’s surprising how they keep making it work. The film sucks you in with these larger-than-life characters but then grounds them with children, parents, siblings, and friends. Yeah Johnson doesn’t look, talk, or act like a real human being, but his relationship with his daughter feels real and is just nice to watch. The same goes for the Shaw family. Statham’s Deckard has killed his fair share of innocents – fan-favourite Han included – and we know that his brother and mother are equally rough pieces of work. But through encounters with his mum (played by the returning national treasure Helen Mirren) in a prison visiting room, you want things to work out for them. With some reveals about his backstory, this film goes a long way to making Deckard seem like a more three dimensional character – and maybe not such a bad guy after all. And though the ages are off, Statham and Kirby bicker and talk like siblings. It feels like a real relationship and, just like in the main series, it makes all the difference.
At the end of the day, these films live or die based on their action. And this one is no different. It’s good news then that the film is helmed by action expert David Leitch, director of John Wick, Atomic Blonde, and Deadpool 2. The man knows action, and that’s clear in Hobbs and Shaw. There are care chases and stunts, fistfights, gunfights, wrestling moves, explosions – it’s a bit of everything. But Leitch gives it all a clear, almost classy feel. The standout action scenes come in the third act, as a helicopter is tethered to a convoy of cars in a ridiculous display of horsepower and the sheer strength of Luke Hobbs as he holds the tethered helicopter with his rippling biceps – like Captain America in Winter Soldier. The other standout set piece is the final fight against Brixton. I won’t spoil too much but it’s stylish, clever and has a few really great character moments.
If you go and see this film and you’ve seen even one shred of marketing, you know what you’re going to get. It’s a fun blockbuster with great action and excellent stunts. And if you’ve seen any of the previous films, you know how much heart there is underneath. There are pacing issues because, like its stars, the runtime is a real behemoth – but it’s never boring, which is the real test. The performances aren’t particularly outside of anyone’s wheelhouse, but I could watch Johnson and Statham exchange barbs all day, before spin kicking and rock bottom-ing everyone in the room. They know what works and they play up to it. And though Vanessa Kirby is not an established action star, she keeps up with the main duo. (It’s just a shame she is side-lined as a more traditional damsel in the third act, after her character is handled so well earlier on).
This might be some people’s introduction to the franchise, wooed by the appeal of the Dwayne Johnson-centric story. So hopefully it wins more people over and shows them that this series might be big and dumb – but it knows it and it embraces it. It really is a crowd-pleaser and I can’t imagine people not enjoying it. Except Vin Diesel.
Reviewed by Jack