It’s been quite a trip watching the evolution of the Fast and Furious franchise. That very first film was mostly hidden from critics, and those of us who liked it assumed to have terrible taste. After two sequels that assumed they could just jettison any of the lead character and nobody would notice, it finally became everyone’s favorite dumb-fun, pro-diversity franchise somewhere between movies 4 and 5. Hobbs and Shaw, the first installment to officially be a spin-off rather than a sequel (Tokyo Drift should also be considered the former, but is not) was a worldwide hit earlier this year primarily based on global brand strength. It couldn’t quite make back its $200 million budget domestically, but ultimately accumulated $758 million in all markets. And yet, as a movie, it’s something of a mess.
To begin with, it suffers the same problem as the last couple of Pirates of the Caribbean sequels: Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Shaw are appealing in the mainline F&F films because of how over-the-top they are in supporting roles. They’re never the leads – that role is always filled by Vin Diesel now, and was shared with Paul Walker until the latter died unexpectedly. Johnson and Statham undoubtedly can be leads, and frequently have been in other movies, but these F&F flicks typically rely on them being amped-up superhumans who yell insults constantly. Hobbs and Shaw wants us to see them as an odd couple – Shaw is wealthy and English while Hobbs is regular-guy Samoan – but superficialities aside, they’re the same kind of character. We’re never given a good reason why they’re mismatched. And yes, I know that’s in the other movies, but even Marvel films are self-contained enough that they remind you why pre-existing grudges are there each time. It’s cool that we get some sense of why Shaw used to be a heartless killer, and why Hobbs is estranged from his family. But they play like incidental developments rather than integral themes.
More importantly, the story is all over the place. It wants to be Fast and Furious meets The Transporter meets The A-Team meets The Six Million Dollar Man meets any WWE feud involving the Anoa’i family. If it focused on being maybe just two of those things and doing them well, we’d be somewhere. Also, every good part has already (a) been shown in trailers and (b) come from the third act of the movie. Two hours and 12 minutes is way too long and indulgent. Naturally, a studio (needlessly) funneling $200 million into something like this wants their money’s worth.
Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) hints as much on the disc. His commentary track sounds tentative and lacking in confidence, while the extras include sequences entirely re-edited, usually for the better, without anything new, that seem to be “director’s cuts” and are generally superior to the drawn-out theatrical cut versions. If you wondered why that big brawl in Samoa suffered from drop-frame and stutter-vision, watch the alternate take, and realize that it features so many metal hammers bashing in skulls that it probably risked the PG-13 rating.
If you’re a WWE fan who wonders where Roman Reigns is, after much hype and almost no screen time in the final version, the extras have you covered with a history of Samoans in wrestling. Reigns himself feels so much less confident out of character than his cousin Johnson that one realizes why he hasn’t been able to capture the same level of fanbase yet. Other standout featurettes include breakdowns of the action scenes, and a spotlight on Helen Mirren’s role.
The 4K best comes into play during the film’s finale, with Johnson, Statham, and Idris Elba fighting in the rain in slow motion. No droplet or slo-mo punch goes un-fetishized, and the actors know how to choreograph so zero editing tricks are needed.
But still, I come back to a $200 million budget and wonder how, on an unknown but clearly much lower budget in 1988, Red Heat got this formula better. Released last week on 4K, presumably in hopes of getting some Terminator juice, Water Hill’s mismatched heroes movie is much simpler. The ultimate American stereotype of a Soviet meets the ultimate Soviet stereotype of an American, and they must join forces to confront the new ultimate villain: drugs! Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Danko epitomized what we feared our Cold War rivals all were: Aryan ubermensches with no sense of humor and unquestioning loyalty to a hostile state. Jim Belushi’s Ridzik, meanwhile, was total western decadence and debauchery: a drinking, smoking, horny misogynist cop who jokes too much. The conflict between them is clear and simple, while bad guy Viktor (Ed O’Ross) is sleazy sadism personified. They don’t need a fight scene running down the side of a building to impress viewers, because motives and characters are clear and focused.
For what it’s worth, Schwarzenegger actually tries rolling his r’s to sound more Russian, but it’s not like his fundamental Austrian intonations are compromised much. Belushi even in his 30s looked 50, but the physical contrast serves as a solid visual gag. Early standout performances from Gina Gershon, Laurence Fishburne, and Pruitt Taylor Vince show that Hill always had an eye for talent. And the 4K transfer is great – it looks like it could have been shot yesterday, save all the dated Cold War stuff. On the extras, Schwarzenegger and the producers disagree as to whether the Moscow stuff was proudly shot and welcomed on location, or sneaked guerilla style. I suspect the former, as BTS footage shows Arnold mobbed by fans.
With a $35 million domestic gross, Red Heat was not considered a hit. In the days before the Berlin wall had fallen, action audiences might not have been ready to embrace a patriotic Soviet, though Schwarzenegger was savvy enough to realize this opened a door for him that more traditionally patriotic Stallone movies might not be able to penetrate.
Yet today, it shows the essence of what Hobbs and Shaw has lost. Create a real conflict and contrast, and know what tone you’re going for. By the time Hobbs and Shaw execute a Fast and Furious style maneuver with Hobbs’ mostly anonymous Samoan brothers helping out, it feels like a hollow, calculated “we have to do this for the fans” bit. Focus on conflicts first, stunts second, is why Red Heat still works. I’m not sure anyone will care about the other one 30 years from now.