RATING |

As you watch Dwayne Johnson, in Samoa, pulling on a chain attached to a helicopter piloted by a cyborg in Hobbs & Shaw, it’s helpful to remember this franchise started as a movie with a genuine interest in exploring street racing culture in Los Angeles.

What a long strange trip it’s been, and maybe getting stranger — producer/writer Chris Morgan says the franchise may next go to outer space, so long is it continues to address the fundamental questions posed by the Fast & Furious universe: “Is it bad ass? Is it awesome?”

Matters to ponder in Hobbs & Shaw. The movie is described as an Fast & Furious spin-off and not an official entry in the canon, featuring actors and characters who joined the party late, and its full title is the colon-ized Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, which reflects the franchise’s growing interest in making everything longer.

Hobbs and Shaw is a 137-minute epic directed by David Leitch, who in Deadpool 2 gave us one of the action comedy high points of recent years with the mordantly funny X-Force sequence. He’s a talent, and here has been given a large canvas to fill with stunts and special effects, which he does, in his own way, more so than friend and fellow stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski (John Wick Chapter 2 and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum). Leitch likes to look for the laugh in a scene, and here is working with a cast that shares this instinct.

The whole thing is framed as a buddy comedy featuring thrown-together antagonists, with the stars working slightly against type. Johnson is the impulsive, bull-in-a-china-shop American Hobbs, who wears t-shirts and rides Harleys, and Statham is reserved British operative who drives McLarens and wears bespoke suits as he clears a room full of bad guys and brains them with champagne bottles.

In Hobbs & Shaw, both are assigned — at first, unknown to each other — to find a woman (Vanessa Kirby ) in possession of a nerve agent, also sought after by a cyborg-ish bad guy (Idris Elba), who’s working for tech overlords who want to wipe out a portion of the human population and redesign survivors to improved specifications, which sounds ridiculous, and also like something Facebook, Amazon and Google might eventually do.

Anyway, all of this is just an excuse for Johnson and Statham to pretend to hate each other before conceding that they actually like each other, and despite the movie’s emphasis on physical action, it’s this chemistry that keeps the movie going (ditto the rapport between Johnson and a couple of guest stars).

There is also generous screen time for Kirby, who plays Shaw’s sister (Helen Mirren is back as his mum, in a brief role), and of course her growing attraction for Hobbs adds immeasurably to the tension between the two men.

This is all good fun, but midway though the movie gets flabby, and you peg this almost exactly to the moment when Elba’s character starts to give the most long-winded Bond villain speech in recent movie history. That’s when you begin to why his interior cyborg super-brain enhancements haven’t been programmed to know that too much villain talking allows the good guys time to escape.

And after London and Los Angeles and Russia we still have to go to all the way to Samoa for the big finale, featuring yet more backstory about Hobbs’ own family, but, more to the point, flame-throwing dune buggies and drag-racing tow-trucks. Are they bad ass? Are they awesome? Yes, but they will be hard to get into orbit.

RATING |

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Directed by David Leitch. With Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Eddie Marsden, and Cliff Curtis. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 17 mins.

Parents guide: PG-13 (violence)

Playing at: Area theaters.