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Front Page - Friday, August 16, 2019

Fast & Furious spinoff too audacious for its own good

It’s hard to believe the mid-budget street racing pic “The Fast and Furious” has brought us nearly 20 years later to the preposterous “Hobbs & Shaw.”

Not that “The Fast and Furious” was a masterpiece, but it was an entertaining film that introduced several compelling characters, including Los Angeles police officer Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker) and car thief Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). It also launched a franchise that has produced seven sequels and now the “Hobbs & Shaw” spinoff.

So, how did the “Fast and Furious” franchise evolve from a story about O’Conner infiltrating Toretto’s little band of L.A. carjackers to DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) taking on a genetically-enhanced terrorist who intends to use a virus to wipe out most of mankind?

I shouldn’t ask questions I can’t answer. But what I can tell you is that “Hobbs & Shaw” is an audacious film that knows exactly what it is and does its best to just have fun being what it is.

There were moments when I kind of liked “Hobbs & Shaw.” Idris Elba plays a terrific bad guy who has a unique relationship with his motorcycle. The computer-animated shots of him and his bike either spinning out of control or crashing and then regaining traction are super, and Elba has the kind of imposing physical presence and natural charisma an antagonist with his ambition needs.

There are also a few outlandish action sequences that work really well visually, even if the ideas behind them ignore the laws of physics. In one, Hobbs freefalls off a skyscraper and lands on a bad guy who’s rappelling down the side of the building.

In another, a string of cars drifts precariously along the edge of a cliff to keep a helicopter to which it’s chained from escaping. When things break down, Hobbs is able to hold on to the chain – and the helicopter – all by himself. How he accomplishes this without being lifted out of the bed of the truck in which he’s standing is a column for another day.

These and a few other moments are so off-the-wall insane, I was half expecting the actors to break the fourth wall and wink at the audience.

There are also some jaw-dropping slow motion face punches I’m still feeling a day later.

However, most of the time, “Hobbs & Shaw” bored me. While the film has several money shots, most of the action consists of lazily choreographed punches and kicks as characters endlessly pummel each other like heroes and villains in a Marvel movie.

Worse, Johnson and Statham’s characters have a history of contempt for each other, so they spend a lot of time playing the BBC Radio Show game, Playground Insults – and the level of writing is about on par with the lame celebrity barbs on show..

When you present audiences with a two hour and 15 minute film that contains mostly “Batman” show-level biffs and pows and half-baked banter, you can’t be surprised when they grow restless.

You know that waiting game you play when you realize you have to use the bathroom but you don’t want to miss anything? Don’t play it; just go. You won’t miss much.

My biggest beef with “Hobbs & Shaw” is actually a complaint about the “Fast and Furious” series as a whole. When the movies introduced the character of Shaw, he was an assassin who killed a lot of innocent people to achieve his objectives, including members of Tortello’s quasi-family.

But Statham is popular with action film fans and a mild box office draw, so the vanguards of the series did an about face with the character and made him a hero. I’ve never thought it worked and felt it undercut the theme of family that runs through these movies.

So, when Hobbs goes from hating Shaw to calling him “brutha,” it’s about as believable as the physics that kept his feet planted in the truck bed.

I could continue to nitpick – there’s some clumsy acting and directing in the film’s Samoan segments, and Hobbs delivers a cheekily awful soliloquy about the importance of humanity over technology at the end of the film – but I want to save something for the next two “Fast and Furious” sequels, which will come out in 2020 and 2021.

My hope? That they toss all the heists and international intrigue and go back to what made that first film fun: two guys, two cars and a quarter of a mile of street between them and the finish line.