'Hobbs & Shaw' shows how buddy action movies won't grow up

The "Fast and Furious" franchise may be known for its ridiculous actions scenes, but it also does serious business. See how this franchise has brought in over $5 billion worldwide.

Posted: Aug 2, 2019 1:40 PM
Updated: Aug 2, 2019 1:40 PM

The movie business and discussions of masculinity have evolved over the decades. But if a movie like "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw" is any indication, the buddy action comedy -- ripe with juvenile insults and taunts -- remains the Peter Pan of genres, one that refuses to grow up.

Largely immune to change, action comedies remain mired somewhere in the 1980s. That certainly feels true watching this spinoff starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, where much of the humor is predicated on the two's dislike of each other, leading to plenty of verbal jabs back and forth. Those include various anatomical references, impugning each other's manhood literally as well as figuratively.

It is, of course, following the template established by the banter between these characters in previous installments of the flagship franchise. Yet what's striking is how little the formula has varied from the genre's old days, where grudging friendships are forged through shared dangers, but only after exhausting the topic of just how much the leading men can't stand each other.

"Hobbs & Shaw" also employs a common subplot to these scenarios -- namely, the complicating factor of having one guy harbor an obvious attraction to the other's sister, in this case, an equally adept MI6 agent played by Vanessa Kirby.

The "Not with my sister, you don't" trope was featured, for example, in "Tango & Cash," a 1989 movie that starred Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell as highly competitive narcotics cops, with a pre-"Lois & Clark" Teri Hatcher as the former's sibling.

The '80s, in fact, were a veritable treasure trove of buddy action movies -- several of which hung around in the form of sequels -- including "48 HRs.," "Lethal Weapon," "Midnight Run," "Stir Crazy" (one of several Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder collaborations), "Running Scared" and "Red Heat."

Racial or cultural differences became one way to highlight the disparity and friction between the characters, but the genre's popularity spawned various twists, such as the sci-fi permutation "Alien Nation."

As it happens, the year "The Fast and the Furious" movies began, in 2001, the Los Angeles Times ran a column titled "It's Still a Guy Thing: The Evolution of Buddy Movies." Noting that the genre has endured while others, like the western, dissipated, the piece drew a thematic line back to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby and Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin pairings, with a taste of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon's team-ups, especially "The Odd Couple."

The article concluded that these movies "tell us a lot about the eras the films come from," an assertion that seems questionable in hindsight. Notably, "Hobbs & Shaw" arrives on the heels of "Stuber," an action movie starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista that tried to address issues surrounding "toxic masculinity" within the context of what Nanjiani called "a dude movie."

"I feel like we're in a time where we can talk about masculinity and how it's always been very traditionally defined in a narrow way and how that's led to problems for everyone -- for women and for men," Nanjiani told The Hollywood Reporter. "I felt like it would be interesting to try to talk about that stuff in a traditionally very masculine genre."

"Stuber," alas, has mostly fizzled at the box-office. There are several ways to read that, but one is that action movies aren't really the place to explore such nuance, and the people who enjoy them prefer they remain as big, loud and uncomplicated as they've traditionally been.

Whether that assertion holds, firing blanks commercially isn't a fate "Hobbs & Shaw" is likely to suffer. What that says about the expectations of the action-movie audience is open for debate, but for Hollywood's purposes it's the one measurement, ultimately, that matters.

"Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw" opens Aug. 2 in the US.

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