There was once a time, a more innocently violent, popcorn-strewn time when action blockbusters were not just a lot of fun to watch but were well made, complete with richly-drawn characters (well, as richly-drawn as character exposition vs thrills and action would allow), reasonably complex plots and a visual panache that gave them an almost operatic quality.
That fabled time, the lockbuster golden period of the ’80s and ’90s saw the likes of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, Terminator and Alien ruled supreme largely because they were just bombastically impressive but they were well-made into the bargain.
Cheesy and over the top yes, but as a taut, well-constructed piece of diversionary escapist cinema, they were hard to beat.
Hobbs & Shaw, a tangential member of The Fast and the Furious franchise, may not immediately seem like an heir apparent to these fine pieces of big, dumb blockbuster fun, but it is, in so many ways, a worthy successor to these films, ticking all the boxes listed above and then some.
Nobody is suggesting, least of all this reviewer, that the film, or its earlier blockbuster antecedents marks any kind of cinematic high watermark, but it knows what it is, owns, runs with it and damn near exults in it, and comes out surprising well on the other side. (The credits by the way, which feature rolling mini-scenes that round out the film in a fun and playful fashion, are a delight in and of themselves and worth sticking around for.)
Hobbs & Shaw is thus fantastically, exultantly, rampantly, hilariously, knowingly, truly, madly, deeply over the top and does not stop to apologise for it for a second.
It gets away with its fromage-laden bravura precisely because it is such a brilliantly well put together film.
From the opening scenes where we are introduced to rough-and-tumble American and DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and the refined British ex-British Special Forces Deckard shaw (Jason Statham) via a split screen which shows them getting ready in the morning, establishing with a crisp, elegant simplicity that these men are polar opposites in almost every conceivable way – an important delineation given the fractious pair’s chemistry in the ensuing narrative – the film conveys a lush aesthetic that you may not expect from a film of its ilk..
Directed by David Leitch to a script by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, this opening expositional treat begins Hobbs & Shaw as it clearly means to go on, with neatly-constructed scenes, none of which overstay their welcome (the film’s pacing is almost flawlessly immaculate), balletically-choreographed action set pieces which still possess a rough-and-tumble joie de vivre and a colour palette which gives ever last part of the engaging storyline a distinctive sheen.
You’d wouldn’t necessarily call it art but it is beautiful to look at in every frame, ensuring that even blow-em-up, bash-em-up chase scenes such as those in Moscow and at baddy organisation Eteon, which wants to remake humanity, well, the strong ones at least, in its cybernetically-enhanced image – think God with a metal skeleton and you’re getting close its manically-twisted vision – come off looking bright, shiny and inviting.
There is on the whole precious little car racing, the usual trademark of The Fast and the Furious series but Hobbs & Shaw makes up for that with some impressive feats of automotively-acrobatic derring-do which see souped up racing cars all linked together atop a cliff and dragging a helicopter, containing the resident Big Bad and Deckard’s one time friend and Special Forces colleague Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), in its petrol-fueled wake and motorbikes and various almost Mad Max-ian fighting it out in maneuvres so gorgeously-staged that it feels like some sort of artistically-drenched dream sequence.
The real world this is not, but Hobbs & Shaw makes it clear throughout that it doesn’t consider that to be the environment it inhabits; rather, its neighbourhood is the kind of global playground inhabited by the likes of Mission: Impossible and James Bond, a heightened reality that looks like it could exist but actually doesn’t outside movies, since it defies all kinds of logics, laws of physics and just plain common sense.
There is something inherently glorious about the film’s decision to inhabit such a thrillingly-nonsensical world where pretty much anything is possible because it means the narrative can take greatly energetic leaps and bounds without any concerns that it will contravene something as annoyingly pedestrian as real life.
After all, who wants real life when you have fights that defy a human being’s physical capacity to absorb injury and still be standing or a plot which is hokily derivative but soars because of the creative things done with it.
Put simply, Hobbs & Shaw succeeds because it knows its hilariously over the top but plays as if it’s a serious piece of international espionage.
It’s much like satirical or parody films that are making giddily merry with their subject matter but act if they are exploring a desperately serious topic worthy of serious personas and no-nonsense acting.
There’s not a moment in Hobbs & Shaw, which benefits also from finely-written dialogue and actors capable of elevating banter to near-art form levels, where everyone isn’t take the whole thing extremely seriously, despite some fairly credibility-stretching elements.
A cyber virus that can’t potentially kill everyone on Earth save for those Eteon deems worthy? Sure! Posturing AI and big bad humans such as Lore who can look reality in the face and sneer at it with bravado, not once but repeatedly? Bring it on! A virus extraction machine that can be repaired in a rusty chop shop run by Hobbs’ estranged brother Jonah (Cliff Curtis) and appears damn near unbreakable unless narrative contrivance calls for that? Yes, please!
It’s precisely because Hobbs & Shaw treats it all as eminently possible and the task at hand as deadly serious, that the film works as well as it does; that and humour that bubbles furiously and highly-amusingly throughout, and unexpected emotional evocativeness that sees Deckard, for instance have some pretty intense heart-to-heart with his sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who praise the script gods is a fully-capable woman never in need of the muscle or romance of any man, or Hobbs repairing his damaged relationship with his brother.
Every single one of these elements and more means that Hobbs & Shaw is a blockbuster treat for the eyes, ears (quite the banging soundtrack too, thank you) and heart, very much in keeping with its predecessors, all of whom recognised that big, bold action is not enough and that you also need a host of other things to be done, and to be done exceptionally well, for any blockbuster to truly have any lasting impact.
It’s a sage lesson often missed these days of slapdash-produced blockbuster production which feel half-done in almost every measure, but Hobbs & Shaw has clearly been attention to the classics (it seems entirely fitting to call them that and it’s not just nostalgia speaking) and executes every last aspect of itself perfectly, serving up a wholly-pleasing, fun-to-watch blockbuster truly worth the name.