How do you screw up a set piece as foolproof as Dave Bautista versus Iko Uwais? Uwais, the astonishingly limber Indonesian martial artist who starred in The Raid, has been wasted in American movies before—given nothing cool to do on the Millennium Falcon, asked to play second fiddle to Mark freakin’ Wahlberg. But he’s probably never been inserted into a fight scene as borderline-incoherent as the full-contact apartment brawl that opens Stuber. The sequence is so tightly shot, frantically edited, and indifferently choreographed that it could be just about any two actors trading blows before the violently jerking camera lens. On the list of action-movie blunders, rendering obsolete the talents of these two physical specimens has to rank very highly.
You can forgive a little sloppiness in an action-comedy, provided the laughs are there. But Stuber is pretty slapdash in the yuks department, too. The title is a combination of the name “Stu” and the corporate brand “Uber.” Sadly, this portmanteau may be the cleverest thing about the movie, which tweaks the basic plot of Collateral into a shrill buddy-cop scenario. Possibly angling for a side career as a ride-share spokesman, Kumail Nanjiani chases his starring role in The Big Sick with another mild-mannered, sardonically dorky Uber driver. His Stu ends up thrust into a different kind of life-and-death emergency when his newly leased Prius is commandeered by Vic (Bautista), a hulking, hard-boiled, workaholic cop still hunting the bad guy (Uwais) who killed his partner (fellow Guardian Of The Galaxy Karen Gillan) six months earlier.
Stuck behind the wheel while his macho passenger chases leads all over Los Angeles, Stu spends nearly every second of Stuber whining about his predicament. So why doesn’t he just ditch Vic at first opportunity, peeling off when they make their first dangerous stop? Well, if he did that, he’d risk (high stakes alert!) plummeting his driver rating below 4.0. And why does Vic need a driver at all? Well, he’s recovering from laser-eye surgery—and judging from the cinematography, he’s not the only one. Director Michael Dowse, who’s made comedies both inspired (Goon) and less so (Take Me Home Tonight), veers erratically from one plot contrivance to the next. Character motivations are as shaky as the camerawork.
The casual mayhem and blue-streak dialogue seem to position Stuber as a throwback to a more “dangerous” era of R-rated Beverly Hills cops and mismatched partners trading racially charged banter. But this is very much a 2019 studio comedy, which means that our heroes’ misadventure doubles as a self-help seminar. The script, by Tripper Clancy, positions Stu and Vic on opposite ends of a modern masculinity spectrum, creating a false equivalency between the former’s beta-male wimpiness and the latter’s emotionally constipated Neanderthal routine. Turns out—big shocker—that they can learn from each other, Stu working up the courage to profess his feelings for his best friend and prospective business partner (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) while Vic becomes a better dad to his disappointed artist daughter (Natalie Morales). In practice, the duo’s temperamental polarity is bet hedging: We’re allowed to “enjoy” Vic’s head-cracking disregard for due process because Stu is around to self-consciously comment on it, his wokeness a shield against criticism.
Really, though, it’s all just a big waste of talent. Bautista, so gut-busting as the doltishly literal-minded Drax, has been given no shades to play in Stuber—his Vic is lumbering and humorless, less straight man than just a pure, unsympathetic asshole. (The closest he has to a comic quality is temporary vision impairment, which leads to some Mr. Magoo slapstick as haphazardly staged as the gun and fist fights.) That puts the full responsibility of joke delivery on Nanjiani, and while the comedian scores a few decent wisecracks (many of them likely ad libs), he also looks pretty wearied, spending a whole hour and a half screaming and quipping at a scene partner giving him nothing back but monolithic gruffness. If Stuber succeeds at all, it’s only as brand integration; everyone will walk out with a full understanding of how Uber works. The demands of action and comedy, however, are apparently much too great a weight for this action-comedy to Lyft.