The particular brand of brio identified with 1980 action comedies has made a comeback of late, as seen in Stuber, which opens next Friday.
Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) stars as an undercover cop fresh from an appointment with the eye doctor, pupils dilated to the point that he can barely see, when he gets a tip that a big drug deal is going down (the kind of thing they used to deal with in the ’80s action comedies).
He can’t drive, so he shanghais an Uber driver (The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani), who ferries him through an increasingly terrifying and dangerous daylong investigation.
The movies gets laughs from the contrast between the petrified ride-share driver whose side hustle has suddenly become life-threatening, and the hulking, hard-charging investigator, played by Bautista in a way that deliberately channels Nick Nolte in 48 Hours, one of director Michael Dowse’s reference points for his actors.
"There was something he particularly liked about the way Nick carried himself in that movie — his personality, his saltiness and his surliness, the way he projected the air of a guy who’s maybe been a cop for too many years,” said Bautista, who stopped in Philadelphia recently with his costar Nanjiani to talk about the movie.
Also the way Nolte smoked, I offered. Hungrily, like a real smoker — a lost art in movies.
“That’s so true,” Nanjiani said. “I can always tell. Like, I was watching an old episode of the Batman TV show where Robin is going undercover, and he’s pretending to be cool, so he smokes a cigarette, and it looks awful, and I’m like, ‘You don’t smoke. You’ve never smoked.’ And in the rare occasions where you do see it in movies today, that’s the feeling you get,” he said.
Nanjiani has Bautista laughing, and it’s a repeat of the kind of chemistry he and Bautista have established, achieved by trying not to think about having chemistry.
“Kumail made me laugh earlier when he made the point that it’s not something you can plan for. You can’t say, ‘Hey Dave, let’s go out tonight and build some chemistry.’”
Nanjiani studied Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, looking for ideas.
“I watched that movie repeatedly because, first of all, it’s just a great movie, and also to get a sense of how to do what they did in that movie, which is to take two people who are at each other’s throats, and do that in a way that is fun to watch and in a way that endears you to both of them and that doesn’t feel fake,” he said.
Most of the violence in the R-rated Stuber is also meant to be realistic within the confines of the genre, he said.
“It’s really shot like a full-on action movie. To me, where so many comedies go wrong is that the stakes are really low, like they are afraid to have too much at stake, and here, the stakes are life and death, and we wanted the audience to feel that. The higher the stakes, the funnier the movie,” he said.
The trick is to present the violence in way that gives the audience room to laugh.
“There are some shockingly violent moments in the movie. But you can see that our characters are as shocked as anybody. Our reaction is the audience’s reaction, or they are laughing at our reaction, more so than to what just happened,” he said.
At the time of the interview, Nanjiani was under instructions not to officially confirm his next project, but it had been widely reported that he’ll star in a forthcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe movie called The Eternals, costarring Angelina Jolie and directed by Chloe Zhao, who directed last year’s indie docudrama The Rider.
“What I can say is that I was amazed by The Rider, and that I think Chloe is a great talent, and I can’t wait to see what she does next,” Nanjiani joked.
Bautista said he’s working hard to take roles that show he can handle different challenges as an actor — trying anything and everything, sometimes to the chagrin of his own management team.
He’s just wrapped the family comedy My Spy in Canada with Kristen Schaal and on his way out asked her what she was doing next — as it turns out, an episode of Taika Waititi’s TV version of What We Do in the Shadows, also in Toronto.
“I flipped out, and I said, ‘Talk to Taika, and if he can squeeze me in, I’ll do one for free,’” Bautista said. “So the next thing I know, my agent is on the phone and he’s saying, ‘Did you really say you’d do an episode for free? Well you’re doing one, so get right back on the plane. And, by the way, don’t ever say that again.’”