Friday, August 09, 2019

Two for the Road

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw

I knew I was going to owe my brain an apology when I sat down to watch The Fast and the Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019, directed by David Leitch), so I'm mildly surprised that it wasn't quite as dumb as I was expecting. What I got was a ridiculous action movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, and it delivers the action thrills promised by the trailers. It's been a weird evolution for this film's overall franchise from street racing b-movie to sci fi espionage epic. The only franchise I can think of to undergo an even more drastic evolution is Don Mancini's Chucky movies. But that's a different matter. This is as deep a movie as a slick of rain on concrete, but I did notice odd flourishes seeping in from the ambient culture.

Vanessa Kirby and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw

The plot finds lawman Luke Hobbs and secret agent Deckard Shaw recruited to find the MI-6 agent who has absconded with a designer virus that could murder millions of people if it gets into the wrong hands. The alleged thief is Hattie Hobbs, Shaw's secret agent sister. All is not as it appears, however, because the true mover behind the virus is Eteon, a secret cabal of tech futurists who are pushing an agenda of forced evolution to greet the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Their agent is Brixton, an enhanced super agent, who has more than a bit in common with The Terminator and who has a grudge against Shaw. Hattie Shaw, for her part, is trying to prevent the virus from falling into Eteon's hands. To his end, she has injected the virus capsules into herself and has a time limit to get them out before they kill her. Hobbs and Shaw's first order of business is finding Hattie, and then staying alive once Brixton finds them. Then the mission requires them to find a way to extract the capsules from Hattie's bloodstream. This last takes our heroes to Russia, to a secret Eteon facility inside a dormant nuclear plant. Here, Brixton lays a trap for them, and even though they retrieve a device to remove the capsules, it's damaged in the process. Desperate to find a safe harbor, Shaw suggests they go to his home in Samoa. His brother, he says, can fix anything. The trouble is convincing his estranged family to help him, which is no easy thing given the circumstances of his leaving. The first thing his brother does is punch him in the face. Moreover, Brixton is coming with an army of high-tech goons, and the Shaws have only traditional Samoan weapons--family heirlooms--with which to fight them off...

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw

At its core, this is a superhero movie. Neither of our protagonists is technically a superhero, though they do things that border on the superheroic. This movie has only a passing acquaintance with actual physics and when the film places a scene of The Rock pulling a chain that has an attack helicopter attached to it, you're talking about a scene that's more ridiculous than the scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Cap does the same damn thing, minus the chain. Like most contemporary superhero films, this is James Bond crossed with post-Singularity science fiction, and it wouldn't be out of place in the Marvel stable of films. Certainly, Idris Elba's "black superman" is a supervillain you don't even have to squint at to see. He's more than human and, in the best tradition of tragic supervillains, less than human at the same time, a murderous cyborg under the control of a shadowy puppetmaster. He's a Frankensteinian transhuman nightmare. The concerns of Eteon itself have a real-world analogue, given that stories have started to surface on social media about the wealthy planning to live in "eco-fortresses" once the worst of climate change ravages the planet. These are that kind of asshole, and represent a measure of the zeitgeist that produced this film. In past decades, this species of buddy action film would have tested its heroes against a drug cartel or Jihadist terrorist or whatever. In importing science fictional elements into the franchise, this film also plugs in to science fiction's tendency to be a mirror held up against the culture at large. A funhouse mirror.

Idris Elba in Hobbs & Shaw

Mind you, this IS a stock buddy picture, in which both of our protagonists hate each other and never miss a chance for a put-down or a mean prank, with shedding the other as a goal. In terms of delivering invective, I give Jason Statham the edge because of that bully boy soccer hooligan accent. Neither actor is pushing beyond the boundaries of their established screen personae, though Johnson is engaged with this film in a way that he hasn't been in films like Skyscraper or Baywatch so you're getting prime Johnson rather than phoning-it-in Johnson. Mediating between the two leads is Vanessa Kirby's Hattie Shaw who in a more just and equitable world would have had the heroics in this film all to herself, but still manages the not inconsiderable feat of stealing the film from her male leads. Hattie is a new addition to the franchise. For this edition, they've dropped a sizable number of the Fast and Furious characters much to the betterment of the film, and compensated with better characters and better actors. Kirby is a star in the making and she's given plenty of movie-star things to do to hurry her down that path.

Vanessa Kirby and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw

This is directed with a keen sense of its own absurdity, and even if the stunts are often performed by a computer, it has a physicality to it that keeps it from flying too far off the rails (until it literally flys off the road at the end of the film). David Lietch was one of the creators of John Wick, after all, which was a manifesto in opposition to the 21st Century's infatuation with chaos cinema action sequences. The action sequences here are fast and cut that way, but there's usually a sense of geography within them, and they are never a slave to the close-up. There's actual directing involved rather than creating its set-pieces entirely in the editing room. The direction of actors leaves a bit to be desired, as both Statham and Johnson are encouraged to give broad performances, and Elba practically devours the landscape whenever he's on screen. But this is a cartoon, so what can you do? This is NOT one of the masterpieces of action cinema, and it is to this film's sorrow that one of its set-pieces involving the helicopter I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back resembles a similar sequence in last year's Mission: Impossible--Fallout, because that's a comparison that this film cannot endure.

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw

One weird thing about Hobbs & Shaw is the way it seems like a couple of flavors of dystopia. This is a film that is ostensibly set in the present even if it is more realistically a day after tomorrow kind of sci fi film, and yet in its production design, it has gone out of its way to suggest a collapsing civilization. Its portrait of London, for example, with its network of security cameras and intelligence agencies dueling over a designer virus seems like a cyberpunk dystopia. And, granted, you could argue that the present moment actually IS a cyberpunk dystopia. In fact, I don't even think it's "arguable." When the film moves outside of the city, though, things are on their way to Mad Max land. The industrial waste where Eteon's secret lab is located is a derelict nuclear plant with ash wastes around it where trucks and modified vehicles can race. And the Hobbs family home in Samoa looks to have been kitbashed from wrecked ships and wrecked factories. It's a place where displaced workers squat in the wreckage of late capitalism and invent new economies and new cultures. The conflict between low tech and high tech at the end of the film has an element of this, as well. This is a film that doesn't necessarily realize that it's a portrait of a slow apocalypse, but it surely is one.

I probably read too much into movies. This isn't a film designed to trouble an audience with politics or ecological collapse or global pandemics or eugenic genocide or the depredations of late capitalism even though all of these are the raw material from which this monster was built. Those things are Maguffins in this film, a means of generating a plot on which to hang fantasies of speed and destruction. And yet those things still manage to seep into the texture of the film in spite of what its intentions might be. It intends to be a summer thrill ride of a movie and at that level, it works well enough. For me, though, there's an uneasy truce between this film as an entertainment and the way it glosses over absolute horrors. In the end, I had a pretty good time. Maybe I shouldn't have.

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