There’s a scene early in Hobbs & Shaw that showcases the entertaining potential of the film. Having just caught a glimpse of each other for the first time (presumably) since the events of The Fate Of The Furious, and having been told that they’ve been partnered up together, the two mutually outraged antagonists, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), hurl invective (and an office chair) at one another. Separated by a thick pane of glass, a split-screen shot plays up the mismatched-cop mentality of the premise, allowing the two ego-centric alpha males to play a game of one-upmanship in the insults department, an exchange that literally includes Johnson making an “I’m having sex with your mom” diss. Watching the two iron-jawed embodiments of action-movie machismo reduced to schoolyard taunts turns out to be awfully enjoyable to watch, the two stars’ natural charisma doing much of the work for them.
Then Johnson runs down the side of a building, they engage in a car chase scene that makes Wile E Coyote’s pursuits of the Roadrunner look downright plausible, and things start to feel, well, numbing. As scene after scene of interchangeable male bravado between Hobbs and Shaw gets interspersed with increasingly ludicrous moments of CGI violence (not really helped by turning the villain, Idris Elba’s rogue spy Brixton Lore, into a literal superhuman), the effect starts to be exhausting, a sense of being pummeled into submission by the loud, empty spectacle rather than being energized by it. Why does this supposedly joyful celebration of all things big, dumb, and silly feel so joyless? Why does the madcap potential of the early going peter out with such lunkheaded ponderousness? One could certainly blame helmer David Leitch (as our critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes, “The staging of loud, destructive, effects-laden set pieces seems to elude the director’s grasp”), or take umbrage with the obvious fakery of the CGI action, compared to something like the excellent Mission: Impossible films. And both are valid criticisms.
But there’s also a clear question of tone, and it’s something I’ll call “the cartoon tipping point.” Basically, the evaluation goes like this: At what point does the movie feel like it’s unintentionally become a live-action version of something that would work better as a Saturday-morning cartoon? There are plenty of movies that coast by with the clear intent of deviating from any connection to reality, and they can often be great fun. (Statham’s own Crank movies being exhibit A.) But when a movie tries to have it both ways—to be both over-the-top nonsensical spectacle and grounded, emotionally resonant storytelling based in human drama—a fork in the road usually emerges. These films can either abandon one of these foundational elements, or they can try with increasingly obvious labor to hold together these divergent goals, usually to the detriment of the viewer.
It’s important to note the difference between implausible and cartoonish. Plenty of movies set up implausible worlds or stakes, then ask us to accept them as the narrative unfolds. The James Bond movies are an excellent example in this regard. Look at the best iterations of that franchise, be it Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, Casino Royale, or Skyfall. They’re all rank with implausibility, but never cartoonish; you believe Bond exists. Then look at the worst installments—Moonraker, The World Is Not Enough, even Quantum Of Solace—all of which, I’d argue, cross the cartoon tipping point. Even Solace, with its dour mood, overcompensates by removing Bond from the existing world with its messy, poorly orchestrated set pieces.
As an apologist for the Fast & Furious franchise, my default position is to argue in favor of this series’ strengths. They’re mostly a good time! (Series highlight Fast Five was a go-to late-night watch for the better part of a year.) But even I would argue the cartoon tipping point has nonetheless been reached in the last couple of installments. These movies have always incorporated po-faced encomiums to “family” into their messages, liberally sprinkling feel-good life lessons across the main meal of sumptuous action sequences. Fast Five was the first to realize the films could more or less leave physics behind in the name of fun, but the movies hadn’t yet embraced that mindset, which might be why it strikes the ideal balance between the grounded reality of the first half of the series, and the ludicrously enhanced (and Ludacris-enhanced) silliness of the back half. The subsequent films, 6 and 7 in particular, started to walk a fine line between intense action and nonsensical, cartoonish spectacle.
But by the time of Fate Of The Furious, the seams are showing. Visibly struggling to keep audiences invested in an intimate, depressing family drama about someone hurting the ones they love in order to keep safe someone they love even more, it then plunks these scenes down amid some of the least believable CGI action the franchise has ever displayed. (Coming after a film in which they literally fly cars out of an airplane onto a road thousands of feet below, that’s really saying something.) The movie wants to wink at reality and then go beyond it, while never letting go of the conceit that this is all really happening. But it can’t have its grounded-drama cake and eat it too, not when said cake never once looks real as it races across an arctic shelf fighting a just-launched atomic weapon. At that point, it would’ve been better as a cartoon. Tipping point reached.
Obviously, this point arrives for different people at different times, but I actually find that contributes to its fecundity as a concept. It’s a useful tool precisely because it helps to articulate why a live-action movie isn’t delivering on its promises—it fails to properly use the boundaries of its chosen genre. Sure, there are exceptions that prove the rule (hello, Kill Bill), but those are often films that embrace the malleable nature of their stories, blenders of genre that challenge the very storytelling rules they simultaneously embrace.
And let’s face it: Hobbs & Shaw isn’t nearly smart enough for anything like that. After 45 minutes or so of laughing at the absurdity, nothing really changes. It doesn’t settle down or jettison its grounded family dramas in favor of madcap, damn-the-torpedoes lunacy. Instead, it ropes you into hanging around for the same desultory scenes of people standing around and talking about their feelings, dragged on for well past the two-hour mark, while simultaneously staging CGI stunts that feel fake even before you get to the money shots of explosions. It relies far too heavily on the likable nature of its leads to carry us through this tiresome journey; eventually, even Statham and Johnson seem exhausted by the effort. Hobbs & Shaw hits the tipping point for me about a third of the way in. It doesn’t recover, but it does serve as a helpful example of what such films do wrong. It can’t be all things to all people, but it tries, and that refusal to embrace either realism or fantasy damns it to middling results in both. Just be the cartoon—it’s obviously what this silly-ass story wants.