The first time Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw came to physical blows, in “Furious 7,” they wound up destroying an office building. It was an auspicious beginning, a kind of meet-cute for meatheads. The last time we saw them, in “The Fate of the Furious,” they were hanging out at a rooftop barbecue, having more or less buried the hatchet. But peace never lasts for long in these movies, least of all for two guys who were such natural-born adversaries, forever destined to butt heads, throw fists and mock each other’s mothers.
Such a combustible mix of tempers, egos, bald heads and monosyllabic surnames surely warranted a stand-alone entertainment of its own. That explains (sort of) the existence of the aggressively cartoonish spinoff that is “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.” It’s both a hoot and a bit of a slog — a “Fast & Furious” movie, more or less, but with more ampersands and fewer series regulars than usual. The title doesn’t lie: The action sequences are as fast as ever (even if the movie as a whole, at 137 minutes, is in no particular hurry), and as Hobbs and Shaw, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham deliver more than their share of the requisite fury.
The appeal of a spinoff — a chance to explore a diverting new corner of a familiar movie landscape — is easy enough to see. Over 19 years and eight features, the “Fast & Furious” universe has expanded far beyond the hot-rod hijinks of the early 2000s to become something bigger and sometimes better: a mega-budget vehicular soap opera, a showcase for set-pieces that defy physics and common sense, a delivery system for swaggering banter and sincere, lump-in-the-throat emotion.
With “Hobbs & Shaw,” the director David Leitch and the screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce have funneled some of these elements into a formulaic beat-the-clock espionage thriller, along with huge fistfuls of lunkheaded insult comedy. Johnson is back as Hobbs, the soulful human sequoia who until recently was flexing his muscles and eyebrows in federal law enforcement. Statham is also back as Shaw, the wily mercenary with the sexy-menacing rasp and a shadowy history working in British intelligence. Both characters are reintroduced via a split-screen montage that serves as an amusing study in contrasts: Guess which one cooks eggs for breakfast and which one downs them raw, Rocky-style.
The two men are called in to help neutralize a major international threat, namely a deadly bioengineered virus that has fallen into the wrong hands. The virus apparently liquefies your organs, a prospect that Hobbs and Shaw view as only slightly more painful than having to work together. Much testosterone-drenched trash talking ensues: There are many jokes about physical size (Shaw mocks Hobbs’ endowment, Hobbs compares Shaw to Frodo Baggins) and a lot of macho posturing about who’s going to get the job done. It’s only a matter of time before one of them threatens to sleep with the other’s sister.
That would be Shaw’s estranged younger sibling, Hattie (a superb Vanessa Kirby), a skilled MI6 agent who is reported to have double-crossed her team and made off with the virus. But before long she reveals herself to be the pawn of a nefarious global techno-conspiracy (yawn), one that will soon ensnare Hobbs and Shaw, branding them as dangerous fugitives in the media and sending them skittering from the chilly streets of Moscow to the sunny shores of Samoa.
Family has become a key mantra in the “Fast & Furious” movies, generally used in reference to Vin Diesel’s big, sprawling cult of auto enthusiasts. The definitions of family here are more conventional but no less heartfelt, extending to Hobbs’ Samoan relatives, whom he hasn’t seen in years, as well as Shaw’s incarcerated mother (Helen Mirren) and fugitive sister. Kirby, looking beautifully coiffed and made up even at her most bruised and battered, is the obvious cast standout, stealing scene after scene from Johnson and Statham in what amounts to a kind of cinematic grand larceny.
You might remember Kirby as the femme fatale in “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” a comparison that is not particularly flattering to “Hobbs & Shaw.” There’s no shame, of course, in not measuring up to one of the better Hollywood spy capers of recent years. There is still a great deal to see here — and, from the whirring of car engines to the relentless dropping of needles on the soundtrack, just as much to listen to. The globe-trotting escapades are as eye-popping as the stunt choreography: To watch Statham deftly maneuver his sports car underneath a moving truck, or Johnson swing a helicopter on a chain as if it were a recalcitrant pit bull, is to witness feats of action-movie engineering at their most dazzlingly gratuitous.
The mix of impossibly high stakes and seamless visual coherence is one of Leitch’s signatures, as evidenced by the directing chops he showed off with “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde.” His most salient credit, however, may be “Deadpool 2,” and not just because he’s granted an overly generous supporting role to a wisecracking Ryan Reynolds. From the snarky, self-regarding quality of much of the banter (the “Game of Thrones” references already feel dated) to the wink-wink lunacy of the action, “Hobbs & Shaw” embraces artifice with a brazenness that feels new to the series. It’s like a “Fast & Furious” movie that’s been deconstructed and reassembled as a gleefully demented live-action cartoon.
Speaking of artifice, the villain this time around is one Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a cybernetically enhanced megalomaniac who wants to use the virus to wipe out half of humanity and raise up a master race of man-machine hybrids like himself. It’s fascinating to consider that dystopian possibility as a metaphor for the “Fast & Furious” movies, which have always been predicated on their own fusion of humanity and technology, that glorious alchemy that transpires when a car and a driver fuse together as one. For better or worse, these are digitally souped-up blockbusters that haven’t entirely lost touch with their humanity, even if “Hobbs & Shaw,” diverting as much of it is, could have used less snark and more soul.
‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’
Rating: PG-13, for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: Opens Aug. 2 in general release