Lest there be any confusion between "Hobbs & Shaw" and the nameplate of a boutique law firm (or purveyor of fine men's dress shoes), the full title of the new movie comes with a built-in disclaimer about its lowbrow provenance: "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw."
A spinoff of the popular action franchise featuring two of that series's recurring characters — Dwayne Johnson's lawman Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham's mercenary Deckard Shaw — the film is far from prestige fare, yet more often than not, it hits that summer sweet spot between the silly and the satisfying.
Yes, it's one long, loud and frequently ludicrous series of action set pieces (including a chase scene that sends a car and a motorcycle between the wheels of a moving tractor-trailer). But it's also pretty funny and watchable, if not in abundance, then in just enough measure to counteract its unabashedly far-fetched plot.
That plot — which like more recent iterations of the "F & F" juggernaut has migrated away from hot-rod culture to international espionage — pairs Hobbs, a straight-arrow agent of the Diplomatic Security Service on loan to the CIA, with Shaw, a disgraced former member of the British military. Their mission? To find and apprehend an MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby) who is believed to have absconded with a "programmable bioweapon" code-named Snowflake.
This is complicated by the fact that someone else also wants that weapon: a cybernetically enhanced supervillain named Brixton (Idris Elba).
The fact that the MI6 agent just happens to be Shaw's estranged sister is a minor wrinkle, while mostly serving to justify the film's sub-theme of family: In a brief, almost throwaway early scene, we see Shaw visiting his mother (Helen Mirren) in prison; Hobbs, for his part, has several interactions with a young daughter (Eliana Su'a), and the film's genuinely eye-popping climax takes place in Samoa, where Hobbs grew up, facilitating a family reunion between Hobbs and his own estranged brother (Cliff Curtis).
But really, "Hobbs & Shaw" is less about ancestry than action, which takes place in the context of constant trash-talking between its mismatched heroes as they go about their globe-trotting business.
Hobbs, a man of the people, describes himself as "an ice-cold can of whup-ass," while Shaw — by sharp, and sharply dressed, contrast — says, "I'm what you might call a champagne problem," before proceeding to beat up a host of bad guys while holding a bottle of bubbly, and never spilling a drop. Hobbs drives a truck (or motorcycle). Shaw: a garage full of expensive sports cars. But it is only in that Samoa-set third act that the film returns to its "Fast & Furious" roots, in a physics-defying sequence involving a helicopter that has been tethered to several souped-up all-terrain vehicles, like a kite.
Call it "Mission: Impossible" for motorheads.
In place of Tom Cruise's megawatt smile, for instance, are the intensely pearly whites of Johnson, whose character announces — aptly — that he has a secret weapon: "People actually like me," he says, unlike the surly Shaw.
It's true, and the actor's charisma will go a long way toward helping viewers forgive the fact that many lines of dialogue are swallowed up by a combination of cacophonous background noise, booming soundtrack songs and thick cockney accents. Did I say dialogue? This is a screenplay that will not win anyone any writing awards. And what passes for disguise — in a story that makes no secret of its willingness to ape the familiar contours of a "Mission: Imposible" plot, including, yes, a ticking countdown timer — is simply a series of goofy hats and one very sophomoric alias that Hobbs is forced to adopt: "Mike Oxmaul."
There are a couple of entertaining cameos that are best appreciated when the surprise is not spoiled, including one very funny scene involving an air marshal. Ideally, "Hobbs & Shaw" works best if you don't just come in blind, but if you lower all your expectations. Silence your cellphone — along with your brain — fasten your seat belt and sit back for a (bumpy) ride.