Xara Zabihi Dutton reviews the highly anticipated Fast & Furious spin-off.
This review contains spoilers.
The moment Luke Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) lifted his copy of the portable Friederich Nietzsche in an alternate rep to his dum-bell I was transfixed; as Hobbs sounded his mouth around the words of this universal hero of pseudo-intellectuals, my hand landed in a viscous lump of gum on the seat arm-rest. Like it or not, David Leitch’s Hobbs & Shaw had my undivided attention.
Hobbs & Shaw, a spin-off of the Fast & Furious franchise, follows Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as their boyish rivalry is challenged by the task of ensuring a bio-warfare serum does not make it into the hands of Brixton Lore (Idris Elba). That’s about it in terms of followable plot.
Hobbs & Shaw enters a particular kind of viewer (this viewer) into the entropy of what I will now refer to as the ‘Nietzsche-sticky-gum syndrome’. This entropy is defined by its back and forth motion between the heights of pretentious back-pattery, and the depths of the oversight excused during the glorification of All Things Trash (also see: ‘Just Let People Enjoy Things’). With just a little further stretch of the (viscous, sticky) imagination it also reflects the body-mind dualism within Nietzsche. As we see Nietzsche propose the improvement of the body in tandem with the mind, so Hobbs embraces his mental and physical development, and we embrace the stimulation of our ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ senses at the hands of David Leitch.
During the film, we see a shift from the appraisal of the potential of technology and the allure of an ever-improving body to a rising fear of the irreversible and inhumane changes impending through bio-enhancement (also see the controversies of Nietzsche, and the recent eugenics scandal at UCL). There’s a kill-or-be-killed element to even the technology within even our sad, physical combat-less daily lives. Failure to improve personal productivity through technology makes the scale of work we are expected to undertake untenable.
Hobbs and Shaw overcome their rivalry in the common pursuit of disarming (unplugging) the antagonist of the film, Brixton, as they realise that his analytic implant can only address one opponent at a time. A symphonic dance ensues, as Hobbs and Shaw take punches for each other in order to preoccupy Brixton, collaboratively disarming him. Neither man has the ability (as individuals without bio-enhancement) to singlehandedly defeat Brixton. The gushy moral? Personal quests for self-enhancement must be foregone to defeat a technological system that will inevitably destroy them. This single scene encapsulates the ethical binary of contention within the film: the struggle between neoliberal individualism, and collaborative, community-based action.
The power of collective action comes to the fore once again when we are introduced to the family Hobbs had left behind for mainland America, after an influx of drug dealing tore apart the community he had grown up in. To deactivate the serum implant Brixton quests for, Hobbs seeks support from his mechanically-gifted brother, who rewove his own extended family by providing employment, and a community hub by establishing his own car maintenance shop. Hobbs is the brother who left to strike out on his own because of the social trauma common to many indigenous communities. In this film, we see him seek support from that same, rebuilt, reunited community. No doubt, Johnson’s own Polynesian heritage is the inspiration for this appraisal. It is encouraging to see a mainstream celebrity use their clout to seamlessly integrate social issues into a mainstream film. As a franchise, Fast & Furious has exemplified the attainability non-tokenistic representation, in a string of financially profitable, blockbuster hits.
While Hobbs’ mother makes an appearance as the matriarch of the Samoan community, there’s no doubt that Fast & Furious female characters are defined by their relationship to men: women are Mothers (cue a dazzling cameo from Helen Mirren), Sisters, daughters or love interests. This is no hot-take – it’s a stone-cold fact. I doubt anyone’s even bothered to try out the Bechdel Test on this franchise. Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), Deckard Shaw’s woe-betided sister, is referred to (un)enigmatically as ‘the girl’. The disinterest in representing women as anything other than adjunct genetic limbs to men means that we only encounter women defined by heteronormative and heterosocial kinship ties.
And yet we find the reason to go on, to spend our Thursday evenings in the Holloway Odeon consuming media that just isn’t meant for us, in the hope that some auto-critiquing Producer will throw us a bone or an Easter egg (a signal of distress, perhaps), to show us that they find the films they’re engaged in the culture-factory of producing as monotonous as we do. And just when you’ve got no hope left, Nietzsche re-enters. After his first appearance in the opening sequence, Hobbs quotes Nietzsche in defense of the psycho-physical benefits of working out (hard). Hattie misattributes the quote to Bruce Lee in a quip which seems an attempt to de-intellectualise both Lee and Shaw. It has been noted by Reddit users that perhaps this is a gentle nod to Quentin Tarrantino’s racially caricatured depiction of Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The fast turn around of films like Hobbs & Shaw provides ample opportunity for reactive references to films released in succession. In including this intertextual reference to Lee, David Leitch may be attempting to re-inscribe Lee in mainstream contemporary film as both a lauded and respected figure. In any case, the Lee-Nietzsche parallel drawn is intriguing – two adolescent- boy icons raise up and level each-other.
Parts of the script being in Samoan, the film is challenged by one of the greatest stumbling-blocks of mainstream cinema in the West: subtitling. Yeah, you heard, words at the bottom of the screen you’ve got no option but to read. When you want nothing more but to consume your adrenaline porn, subtitles are deeply unsavory. Hobbs & Shaw ditches the mildly alienating, oh-so-subtle white Helvetica associated with Arthouse and World Cinema for what, in all honesty, looks like WordArt text from 2007. The subtitling is unavoidable, slipping around the screen depending upon the speaker or action. It might remind viewers of the subtitling also implemented in the most recent John Wick: Parabellum (also co-directed by David Leitch of Hobbs & Shaw). The subtitles become incorporated as a paratextual counterpart to the high-octane aesthetic of action films (God-forbid a single viewer be visually under-stimulated).
So we write reviews which overburden the banalest aspects of culture with some kind of superlative critical significance, without being able to even faintly outline the plot. Not because we’re pretentious and can’t ‘just let people enjoy things’, but because this is still the centre-ground of cultural entertainment, and we refuse to be pushed to the fringes. The fringes of culture are expensive, alienating, and worst of all, no one’s there to listen to opinions about films they haven’t watched.
I could, at any point, walk out of this sticky-seated Odeon and go watch something which does not fill make me feel like I’m well and truly living in that thing they call the Metropolitan Liberal Elite™. Tomorrow evening, you may well catch me in a screening of a seminal work of Czech New Wave at one of the thriving independent cinemas in London (£20 a ticket though, really?). But tonight, tonight I’m watching a spin-off of the Fast & Furious franchise that has received mediocre-at-best reviews from critics, and I am lovin it.