Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Photo: Universal)

FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY David Leitch
STARS Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham

While an animated Calvin and Hobbes movie might seem like a better bet, a Hobbs and Shaw film at least would provide a fair amount of mounting excitement surrounding the exploits of its own animated leads. That’s certainly what’s offered with Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, a spin-off of the popular vroom-vroom series that began all the way back in 2001.

While the every-other-year schedule for The Fast and the Furious franchise suggested that the ninth installment would reach us in 2019, that chapter in the main series has been given a breather while this offshoot makes its presence known instead. (That next picture is scheduled for release in 2020; given such numerically playful titles as 2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fate of the Furious, I maintain it should be called So Nine, So Fine, So Furious.)

Guaranteed to gain more traction than such forgettable spin-offs as Evan Almighty and Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control, Hobbs & Shaw centers on two popular characters who joined the series long after it had commenced its lengthy run. Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) joined the franchise with 2011’s Fast Five and immediately positioned himself as a co-lead alongside Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and the late Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner. As for Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), he began his stint with a tail-end cameo in 2013’s Fast & Furious 6 before establishing himself as the primary villain in 2015’s Furious 7. But because Statham is so gruffly lovable even when he’s killing off series stars (poor Han), the shift was made in 2017’s The Fate of the Furious to allow him to join the good guys. Yet despite now being on the side of the angels, Shaw still maintains his testy relationship with Hobbs, which is naturally the driving force behind this new picture.

Working for an evil organization that operates from the shadows and has the power to distort media information (Fox News?), the genetically enhanced Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) attempts to steal a virus that will be used to destroy everyone deemed inferior. MI6 operative Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby) manages to abscond with the virus before Brixton can nab it, but he retaliates by painting her as a rogue agent and framing her for the murder of her entire team. It’s decided that Hobbs and Shaw are the two best people to find her and arrest her, a decision complicated not only by the men’s hatred of each other but also by the fact that Hattie happens to be Shaw’s sister. Because Hobbs and Shaw both know that Hattie is innocent, the evil outfit then employs “fake news” to also paint them as traitors, resulting in all three heroes finding themselves on the run.

Since Hobbs & Shaw has so much Fast & Furious DNA in its system, it’s expected that there will be plenty of vehicular action, though these sequences alternate between being rote and being ridiculous (yes, even by the generous standards of this series). Far more diverting are the fisticuffs, even if they aren’t quite as extraordinary as the dynamic set-pieces featured in director David Leitch’s earlier picture, 2017’s underrated-and-ripe-for-discovery Atomic Blonde.

Still, it’s the prickly interplay between Hobbs and Shaw that defines Hobbs & Shaw, with Johnson and Statham clearly relishing every opportunity to flex their mouths as much as their muscles. Even when the movie unfortunately extends its stay by heading to Samoa to provide more familial drama (after all, what’s a Fast & Furious flick without constant yammering about “family”?), the banter between the two leads remains energetic and engaging. If any enterprising producer ever elects to reconfigure The Odd Couple with Felix a musclebound American and Oscar a snarling Brit, well, here ya go.

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