Hobbs & Shaw's late-blooming stars
Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson were b-movie actors who worked their way on to the a-list
Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, stars of the new Fast and Furious spinoff movie Hobbs & Shaw, are 47 and 52, respectively. This means that world-saving super-agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) is 15 years older than his on-screen love interest Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), and gravelly semi-criminal Deckard Shaw (Statham) is 20 years older than his on-screen sister (also Kirby). These ridiculous age gaps don't register right away. This is partially because they're still fairly common in Hollywood, but also because while both Johnson and Statham have been making movies for around 20 years, neither of them feel like past-their-prime action heroes ready to sign up for The Expendables.
Of course, Statham has signed up for The Expendables; he did three Expendables movies alongside Sylvester Stallone and company before notching several of his biggest-ever hits over the past five years. (This is, to put it diplomatically, not the same trajectory experienced by the rest of the Expendables cast.) Johnson has a much stronger track record at the box office, but like Statham, most of his biggest hits have come since he joined the Fast and Furious series, more than a decade into his movie career.
Throughout the 2000s, both of these former athletes logged a lot of time in glorified B-movies, some more glorified than others. Johnson did muscular throwback pictures designed to position him as the next Arnold Schwarzenegger, like Walking Tall and The Rundown (in which Arnold has a torch-passing cameo). Statham specialized in even-lower-budget fare like the Transporter and Crank series, with the occasional supporting role in bigger movies. Both performers felt somewhat out of step in a Hollywood whose action heroes drifted away from the Arnold/Stallone model of muscled-out machismo and toward spies and superheroes with greater sensitivity.
Yet Hobbs & Shaw is an action spectacular that's poised to become one of the biggest non-Disney movies of the summer. This would have been a very strange thing to say about a Jason Statham vehicle as recently as, say, 2014. How did Johnson and Statham become bigger stars at 50-ish than they were at 30-ish?
Part of the answer is the Fast and Furious series itself, which stuck around so long that it has managed to produce all-star legacy-sequel reunion movies without ever really taking a break. By the time Johnson joined the series for Fast Five and Statham jumped on as the villain of Furious 7, the series had established itself as a less-expendable Expendables, sending (relatively) more current action stars (and also Tyrese) into relay races of chases, fights, and heists.
But while the series has certainly boosted both Statham and Johnson, they clearly added value of their own, too, as their installments are among the series' biggest hits. Johnson's larger-than-life identity as The Rock and Statham's career doing genre trash have made them both into the same kind of half-ironic multiplex presences that Stallone and Schwarzenegger once were. Neither of them have scored a Rambo, Rocky, or Terminator-level solo series, but their off-screen personas have transcended the need for that on-screen iconography. Luke Hobbs has turned into Johnson's most popular movie role, and that's also his defining character trait: He's a Dwayne Johnson movie role, a version of the former wrestler cranked up by somewhere between 30 and 80 percent, depending on the scene.
Hobbs & Shaw blurs that line further by explicitly incorporating Johnson's Samoan heritage into his alter ego (albeit with a similarly heightened chop-shop backstory and passel of ready-made warriors for his family). Likewise, Statham's Shaw has posher tastes than some of his past characters, as if to reflect Statham's real-life progression. The movie winks (or, in Johnson's case, raises a single eyebrow) at its lead actors' careers, too; even implying, however obliquely and briefly, that Deckard Shaw might be the same person as “Handsome Rob,” Statham's character in The Italian Job. The movie is making clear consideration of their careers outside the vast Fast and Furious continuity, understanding that a Johnson/Statham team-up should have a different tone.
The filmmakers, including director David Leitch, land on a lightweight knockoff of Mission: Impossible, sending Hobbs, Shaw, and Hattie on back-and-forth chases with a super-soldier (Idris Elba) who wants to get his hands on a deadly virus. It's about as perfunctory as blockbuster storylines get, which is only a problem when the movie wavers between self-awareness and self-consciousness.
Hobbs & Shaw wants to be in on the joke of its ridiculousness. It wants this so badly that the movie stops cold several times for superstar comic-relief cameos, advertising its own bigness, reminding the audience that Leitch last made the cartoony Deadpool 2. But these interludes aren't as fun (or as funny) as the movie's car-careening action sequences, or an early split-screen introduction that shows the heroes' contrasting morning routines. It's still fun to watch Johnson and Statham bicker. But the self-conscious japery brings them closer than expected to Expendables territory, and allows Vanessa Kirby to run away with the movie. That's not a bad thing — Kirby has charisma for days — but her sleeker, quieter style recalls better action movies, like Leitch's own Atomic Blonde, or Statham's old Transporter series.
It's enough to make you look forward to Johnson and Statham advancing even further in age — in the hopes that maybe they'll get back into the B-movie business someday.