'Hobbs & Shaw' overwhelms with action

Courtesy PhotoDwayne Johnson, left, and Jason Statham star in 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.'

It’s been nearly 20 years since “The Fast and the Furious,” an action-drama about infiltrating a street racing gang, hit theaters. 

This week “Hobbs & Shaw,” the first spinoff of what has become the “Fast & Furious” franchise, arrives, and apart from fast cars and muscled stars, there aren’t too many similarities between the two. That’s because the “Furious” films have evolved and expanded in ways few other movie franchises could ever hope to, shifting gears from a series of street racing stories that seemed primed to fizzle out to a globe-hopping succession of action tentpoles that just keep raising the stakes with setpieces that cover everything from skydiving cars to races against a nuclear submarine.

“Hobbs & Shaw” is an attempt to take that billion-dollar formula for action superiority and translate it into a series of side stories focusing on beloved supporting characters from the main films, creating a new blockbuster avenue where the action can not only be expanded, but explored in new ways. For that to work, you need star power and enough real personality in the action to justify its existence apart from the other films you’re spinning off from.

In the case of “Hobbs & Shaw,” the film almost never falls short of hitting that goal. If anything, its biggest problem is that it hits that mark too hard and too often, and the result is a movie that feels a bit like you’re being pummeled.

Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) are two spies from opposite backgrounds who’ve never much liked each other. They’ve been on opposite sides of the fight before, and they’ve teamed up before, but that doesn’t mean they’re any more likely to get along this time around. That’s exactly what the CIA needs them to do, though, when Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby, stealing scenes left and right) turns up missing while apparently in possession of a programmable virus that could kill almost everyone on the planet. As the two men reluctantly go in search of Hattie, first separately and then together, they discover a bigger problem: Brixton (Idris Elba), a cybernetically enhanced superhuman with dreams of wiping most of humanity away so the species can start again. Fighting a ticking clock and a virtual army of techno-enhanced goons, Hobbs and Shaw have no choice but to find a way to save the world side-by-side.

The film’s plot, and the MacGuffin that jump-starts it, is more-or-less incidental in this case. It’s a framework, an undecorated Christmas tree that’s merely there to provide structure on which to hang all manner of flashy decorations. The virus at the heart of the film could easily be a computer chip, or plans for a superweapon, or just a really tiny bomb made possible through movie mumbo jumbo. The trick here is not the captivating plot points. It’s the action spectaculars hanging on those plot points.

In that respect, “Hobbs & Shaw” never lets up. Director David Leitch (“Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2”) lays the action on thick and stylish from the opening moments of the film, and while none of it really reinvents the wheel, it does what it does in such a confident, slick way that you find yourself simply drawn in by its flair, like a car with a really great paint job.

The rest is up to the film’s stars, who are the real linchpin of the whole thing. If you’re not going to blow up action movie conventions with your story, and you’re not going to reinvent the action wheel, then you’d better bring us some compelling action heroes to carry this thing, and it’s there that “Hobbs & Shaw” really soars. Johnson, Statham, Elba, and Kirby know exactly the kind of film they’re out to make, and they gleefully cruise through the whole thing, offering one-liners and inspirational speeches with equal swagger and enthusiasm. From the very first frames, you get the sense that there’s nothing these characters can’t do, and that’s the attitude they have to carry on through to the very last frame. They all nail it.

If there’s a downside to all of this, from the surplus of star power to the action onslaught, it’s that there’s never any real moment for “Hobbs & Shaw” to breathe enough to quite feel like a complete story. Yes, it has heart, it has thrills, and it has humor, but those are all elements of a story, and not a story unto themselves. The film seems scared to take a moment to ponder this, as though if it taps the brake pedal for one second you’ll leap out of the car while it’s still moving. In that sense, there’s a weird timidity lurking beneath all the bravado, but only if you’re really looking for it.

When the race is over, “Hobbs & Shaw” turns out to be a film that absolutely understood what it needed to do to deliver the goods as a “Furious” spinoff. Fans of the franchise will not be disappointed, and neither will anyone looking to cram roughly 10 pounds of popcorn into their mouth while they sit in the air conditioning and let the movies carry them away.

‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’ opened in theaters August 2.