In retrospect, we can see 2001's The Fast and the Furious got supremely lucky. A modest, nuts-and-bolts studio B-picture on the topic of illegal street racing, it did what it was supposed to - deliver highish-octane, pedal-to-the-medal action - in a summer where bigger-budgeted studio B-pictures (The Mummy Returns, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) failed to clear even that basic bar. Over the past eighteen years, the franchise has swelled, adding zeroes to its budget and "proper" actors (Kurt Russell, Helen Mirren, Eddie Marsan) to its petrolheaded core cast. With the double ampersanded Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, the series reaches the luxury capitalism stage all modern movie franchises aspire to: here is a spin-off from the main F&F throughline that nobody really needs (in as much as anybody really needs a Fast & Furious movie to begin with), but which the Universal beancounters know full well people will fork out for, thereby keeping the brand in the shop window while everybody waits for the next round of contracts to be signed. Mostly, it comes on as a steroidal placeholder - the series' own Rogue One or Ant-Man and the Wasp - although late developments suggest the producers have their sights set on filling whatever hole has been left behind at the multiplex by the big bangs of the Avengers finale. As one of its burly heroes puts it, in a rare moment of rumination: "In life, things happen. You may not want them to, but they do." A similar inevitability holds true in the movie business.
The franchise has spent the last two decades cornering the market in state-of-the-VFX-art chases and shunts. Hobbs & Shaw, by contrast, arrives as a throwback, appropriating the tropes of the Hollywood action movie in the years immediately prior to 2001. It's not a prequel, but it feels like one because its raw materials have been sourced from the period separating the second Reagan administration from the fall of the Twin Towers. (One pitch must have been: what if the actor formerly known as The Rock had appeared in 1996's The Rock?) So: there's a vial containing a biovirus on the loose, and two of the franchise's biggest lunks - able tracker Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and bullheaded geezer Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) - have been sent to retrieve it. Naturally, they hate one another - Hobbs having previously done for Shaw's no-good brother in Fast Whatever - and, as with the action, this antipathy has been pumped up to an absurd degree. For Hobbs, seeing Shaw again is "like dragging my balls over shattered glass". For Shaw, seeing Hobbs is "like God projectile vomited into my eyes - and it burns". Naturally, they gain a grudging respect for one another in the pursuit of cyber-enhanced ne'er-do-well Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), who announces "I'm the baddie" in the very first scene for the benefit of any real thickos. The main F&F movies have exhibited a dumb sincerity - all that "family" talk - which connects the series back to those original Fifties drag movies. H&S gestures in this direction with a few scenes between Hobbs and his daughter, but mostly preempts criticism by treating everything on screen as a big, snickering joke: the awful dialogue, the name of the virus ("Snowflake"), the surprise (and, not untypically for this franchise, fairly low-rent) celebrity cameo. This one's "fast", and it's "furious", and you often feel those quotation marks muffling what is already a thoroughly 12A-rated proposition.
Is it a good joke? Your mileage may vary, but the smile plastered to this viewer's face for at least some of Hobbs & Shaw's duration would suggest it's not the worst the movies have ever told. Granted, it's by no means sophisticated, targeted at teenagers first and foremost: the leads' priapic one-upmanship reaches its apex (or nadir) when Shaw issues Hobbs with a fake passport identifying him as "Mike Oxmaul". (Don't think about it too long.) For ninety of its 135 minutes, however, it's delivered with gusto, the gusto that may now be required to return erstwhile DTV material to our screens at the height of summer season. The leads bark action movie "dialogue" at one another ("NOBODY TELLS ME WHAT TO DO!"), and every ten minutes, they stop for another of the setpieces that have become the franchise's stock-in-trade. Here's where Hobbs & Shaw risks overkill: as overseen by David Leitch, tempted away from the emergent John Wick series to do Atomic Blonde, these smash-'em-ups are a ragbag of the witty (setting two potential corridor fights in parallel, and using Hobbs' smooth progress to offer an ironic layer of commentary on the logjam Shaw faces) and the noisily derivative (a fistfight in a rainstorm; a jeep-versus-drone chase around an abandoned warehouse where Leitch pounds into flat cliché the edit-suite crutch of cutting the sound before booming impacts). During the latter, Hobbs & Shaw seems to throw up its hands - well, hell, you've already paid for eight of these films (including Tokyo Drift, for heaven's sake), what more can you want from us? - before invariably finding some way of sticking out its tongue and blowing a loud raspberry.
Oddly, though as befits the first F&F to feature character names in its title, Hobbs & Shaw seems at least as engaged with personality (in as much as this franchise has allowed anything in the way of personalities to develop: again, it's a low bar) as it is with straight-up action. You know what you're getting with Johnson and Statham, who do exactly what Johnson and Statham now do for two hours. The surprise here is Vanessa Kirby as Shaw's spacey, scuffed-up sister Hattie, who just so happens to have swallowed the biovirus, as one might a fly. (Perhaps she'll die.) Kirby had been working for a decade, but few noticed her until her White Widow took Tom Cruise for a merry dance in the most memorable scene from the last Mission: Impossible (another franchise racking up unnecessary numbers) and further pointed up the dullness of that series' designated female lead. With her unapologetically flaunted roots and her thousand-yard stare, Kirby is by no means your standard Fast & Furious gal, represented here by Eiza Gonzalez's lingerie-clad arms dealer; if Brixton Lore suggests what might result if Idris Elba mated with the Internet - a sentient Idris Elba, in other words - Kirby's no-nonsense Hattie rather resembles the lovechild of Tilda Swinton and Sharon Watts from EastEnders. There's next to no creative reason for the film around her to exist - and certainly no reason for it to exist at two hours and fifteen minutes; you can feel its energy dissipating and your smile thinning during a climactic pitstop in Hawaii, inserted as a sop to the bigger of its producer-stars - but for some while Hobbs & Shaw succeeds in resembling a different kind of road movie, with a beefed-up Bing and Bob, and a Dorothy Lamour who could kick anybody's behind.
Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is now showing in cinemas nationwide.