Furious 7, the last altogether good movie in the Fast & Furious series, came out in April 2015. This is very recent according to any human-scale accounting of time; but it has been an entire generation in American action cinema. The intervening four years have borne witness to a veritable golden age: while Furious 7 was still in theaters, it had to share space with the epochal Mad Max: Fury Road, and in the years since, we've had Mission: Impossibles Rogue Nation and Fallout, John Wick: Chapter 2, John Wick: Chapter 3, Atomic Blonde, and that's literally just what came to mind without even pausing to think about other examples, or grappling whether the little fact that they're animated means that Incredibles 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse don't "count". In other words, the bar has been raised a lot since Furious 7's parachuting cars and Fast & Furious 6's 30-mile-long runway represented some of the highest high points of action in the first half of the 2010s.

In 2017, when The Fate of the Furious came out, there were enough other obvious problems with that picture that I guess I didn't notice any of this. But now we come to the franchise's first spin-off since 2003's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (which is anyway a completely different thing), Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, and unlike the last movie, it's pretty damn fun and successful in any number of very important ways. And yet! When it comes time to get to the action setpieces, Hobbs & Shaw falls a bit short of the high level its predecessors have set for it. The obvious complaint is that this film has eased off on the practical stuntwork a tiny bit - only a tiny bit (the list of stunt players in the end credits crawl is still larger than most film's entire casts), but you can feel a distinct weightlessness in some of the sequences that rely on CGI to do what safety or the laws of physics forbid the filmmakers from doing. But even accounting for the fact that much of the action takes place inside a hard drive, there's less elaborate imagination in how that action was conceived than we've grown accustomed to. It's a fun, busy movie, but it's also somehow low-key, as ridiculous as it is to apply that word to a story about a robotically-enhanced undead supersoldier trying to kidnap a woman who injected herself with a plague that could wipe out all of humanity.

That being said, Hobbs & Shaw is also as much a spy thriller as it is an action movie; it feels far more like James Bond reconceived as a buddy comedy than as the ninth Fast & Furious movie in 18 years. Hence the full-on supervillain, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), an operative for the international criminal anarcho-terrorist utopian group Eteon (they're trying to create a race of supermen; the film name-dropes Nietzsche just enough for it to seem clever, by the standards of August popcorn cinema); he's on the hunt for Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 operative who was the sole survivor of a raid on an Eteon facility, where she absconded with the group's deadly designer virus Snowflake by placing its only sample right into her bloodstream. In a few days, the virus will awaken and she'll be Patient Zero for a devastating plague, which is why the CIA has tracked down the two people it thinks are best-suited to finding her in a hurry: Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), the DSS agent who's been involved in such an unlikely number of world-threatening missions the last few years, and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who was the cause of one of those threats, but became a hero in the last movie despite having committed the one unforgivable act in the whole Fast universe, killing Han back in whatever film it was Han got killed in. He's also Hattie's older brother, and at least initially, he's the only person on Earth who believes she's innocent of the massacre of MI6 agents that Brixton so neatly framed her for.

Hobbs & Shaw announces itself as little more than 136 minutes (unquestionably too long, though there's no specific place where I'd start doing the cutting) of watching Johnson and Statham playing rigorously purified versions of their stock personae, as they're dropped into a bottle together and shaken up until they get good and fizzy. In practice, this isn't quite what the film is: what it is, is even better, as instead of a two-way banter-fest, it actually turns out to be three ways. Kirby's Hattie re-enters the film pretty quickly, and instead of being a hunt for a damsel in distress, we get the pleasure of a triangle bumping itself around various plot complications. For all that it's Johnson and Statham's film (in that order), Kirby feels like the big deal here: this is her first really big movie role, and she completely nails it, falling into exactly the silly comic book rhythms that her much more familiar co-stars can skip through in their sleep. Not that they're sleeping! Both stars seem terrifically energised by the odd-couple bickering they're set up with, possibly mixed with the pleasure of not having to cope with cantankerous series star Vin Diesel this time around. And just to round it off, Elba is a delight as well, proudly delivering his lines in full hambone mode. Watching a capital-G Great actor get to loosen up and just snarl there way through a role is a lovely treat, and Hobbs & Shaw actually lets us do it twice: Helen Mirren gets a couple of scenes as the Shaws' loud terror of a mother in prison, and her joy at doing it is maybe the purest thing in the movie.

The peppy, silly interplay between the four leads - and between every other member of the cast - pushes Hobbs & Shaw into the realm of outright comedy, for much of its running time. It is, very much to my surprise and not really to my displeasure, director David Leitch's follow-up to Deadpool 2 far more than it is to John Wick or Atomic Blonde. There's a bit of those films in here, certainly: there are some gorgeously neon-lit scenes (and one too-brief sequence making excellent use of a Hawai'ian sunrise to cast part of a massive fight sequence in silhouette), and the hand-to-hand combat is far and away the best action in the movie, even with the rather dubious inclusion of what I'm forced to call "Terminator mode" where we see Brixton's POV as he calculates how to disable his opponents in slow-motion. But mostly, this is a fun lark that draws on what we already love about the stars: the plot is basically London gangsters plus Samoa, with a huge dash of the Fast movies' customary affection for family and the ties of affection that bind us no matter what. It lets Statham sneer and Johnson be all goofy and cute, and uses Kirby's presence to destabilise them enough that this all, somehow and despite itself, feel fresh. Yeah, I mean, I wish that the big car-oriented final sequence didn't feel quite so slick and empty, I wish it was shorter, and I wish that it pretended even for a minute or two that it believed in its own stakes. But when a movie is this effortlessly fun for this much of its running time, and lets so many actors having such a transparently great time spouting one-liners and punching shit, and on top of it, this all happens in August; well, God damn me indeed if I let a little disappointment that this is lower-key than we know this franchise can be prevent me from thoroughly enjoying myself.

Reviews in this series
Fast & Furious (Lin, 2009)
Fast Five (Lin, 2011)
Fast & Furious 6 (Lin, 2013)
Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)
The Fate of the Furious (Gray, 2017)
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Leitch, 2019)

Not yet reviewed
The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001)
2 Fast 2 Furious (Singleton, 2003)
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Lin, 2006)