When we talk about movies not holding up, we often mean over years or decades. Hobbs & Shaw is the first film that does not hold up over hours. Even if you enjoy the experience of watching Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson mug at each other to the tune of $200 million dollars, there’s something about this first exercise in Fast & Furious spinoffs that prevents the film from taking root in your mind. Maybe it’s the barrage of testosterone-laden humor from the two leads. Maybe it’s the cameos, a pair of misplaced end credit gags that stumbled into the actual body of the film.
Or maybe it’s the fight sequences. Despite having two of Hollywood’s most recognizable action stars — and one of Hollywood’s most dynamic directors – Hobbs & Shaw remains a singularly cartoonish affair, a string of Street Fighter-esque punch fests that tell us nothing about the characters. The Fast & Furious movies have always let their set-pieces serve as character development; our best insights into the Toretto clan come from the biggest explosions or brawls in the franchise. Hobbs & Shaw promises to continue this thread in its final battle until suddenly, it’s just the same shit, different day.
If these standalone films are to succeed in the long run, they need to take a long, hard look at both their fight formulas and their stars. Late last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article detailing the creative battles between Johnson, Vin Diesel, and other actors involved in the Fast & Furious franchise. For those who have followed the years-long dustup between Diesel and Johnson, this attention to detail by the leading men comes as no surprise. Bring together the faces from some of the most recognizable action franchises and ask them to play nice, and invariably, you’ll end up with some bruised egos. The revelation that each actor has their own requirements when it comes to fight sequences , including a short-lived point system that Diesel suggested for the franchise regulars , only reaffirms the presence of a behind-the-scenes power struggle that has slowly become as recognizable as the franchise itself.
This power struggle also sets the stage for Hobbs & Shaw, the first spinoff from the larger Fast & Furious universe. While Johnson and Statham may be considered supporting players in Diesel’s world, here they are equals jockeying for position both within the film and on the poster. To complicate things further, the filmmakers brought in Idris Elba to play Brixton, Shaw’s squadmate-turned-nemesis. Although Elba does not have the history with the Fast & Furious franchise that both Johnson or Statham possess, his charisma and tongue-in-cheek approach to the material is such that we’re almost immediately in his corner. That’s what happens when you bring in A-list talent — you step out from one shadow and right into another.
On paper, Brixton is unstoppable. His cybernetically enhanced muscles and reaction speed make it impossible for either Hobbs or Shaw to land a punch. When Brixton delivers a counter of his own, both men are sent flying through the scenery bloodied and broken. It isn’t until the film’s final fight, with all three men brawling on the Samoan cliffside, that Hobbs and Shaw identify Brixton’s only true weakness: wrestling with one character leaves him vulnerable for a counterattack from the other. This means that Hobbs and Shaw have to knowingly take a punch — a punch from the self-proclaimed “Black Superman,” no less — if they are to do any real damage. They will need to lose the fight over and over again until one character is able to deliver the decisive blow.
For a franchise that has slowly reverted back to the indestructible and hypermasculine action leads of the 1980s, this final battle presented Johnson and Statham an opportunity to give their characters some much-needed shape. What better way to subvert your own film than by having your two most action-oriented characters lose their biggest fight? The entire ethos of the Fast & Furious movies — that one should meet strength with, uh, stronger strength – could be unwound by showing Hobbs and Shaw embrace weakness for the greater good. Asking these characters to knowingly lose a fight is an inspired bit of character work from franchise author Chris Morgan and a perfect opportunity to acknowledge, if only in passing, that this whole universe has at least one toe still connected to the ground.
(Plus, since Johnson and director David Leitch already recreated the Winter Soldier helicopter scene to Johnson’s benefit, a fight to the point of exhaustion would provide him with a corresponding “I can do this all day!” moment to make his transformation into Top Heavy Captain America complete.)
And so the stage was set for the metatextual fight scene to end all metatextual fight scenes — until the promise of a knock-down brawl is resolved in a few simple exchanges. Everyone punches in slow motion, Hobbs delivers a wrestling move and a snappy one-liner, and Brixton is left staring up at the unbroken forms of Johnson and Statham. What makes the Hobbs & Shaw fight scene so disappointing is not continuity problems or the been-there, done-that staging of the final brawl. For a few moments, the film taps into something we haven’t seen before in the franchise: the weakness of its leading characters. For once, a Fast & Furious character might not have been strong enough or fast enough to win on his own terms. Instead, all we have are a few slow-motion grimaces and a happy ending for anyone with a shaved head.
It may be odd to single out the final battle in a movie filled with flying cars and low-atmosphere fist-fights, but this final clash with Brixton shows the gap that movies like Hobbs & Shaw need to bridge to find their own footing. If the standalone films are just going to be more of the same, they run the risk of dragging down the entire franchise if (when) Hobbes and Shaw fatigue settles in. But if Johnson and company can find ways to divert from the formula , to make themselves a little less of an xXx knockoff and present their stars the opportunity to do something a little against type, they may just be able to bend a multi-billion dollar franchise to their will. These rules of engagement may have helped Johnson and Statham climb to the top of Hollywood, but they damn sure ruined the end of Hobbs & Shaw. There’s a lot more damage where that came from, too.