Stuber presumes you are familiar with a sub-genre of action-comedy centered on the premise of a grizzled fighting-man type—usually a cop who “doesn’t play by the rules”—having to team up with a timid yet abrasive everyman in order to bring down a dangerous crime syndicate. Popular during the ’80s and ’90s, starring someone like Martin Short as the straight man (Last Action Hero, an underrated meta-parody released 26 years ago, made fun of it by making a civilian kid partner up with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tough cop), the formula is understandably alluring: The action star delivers the over-the-top beat downs, shootouts and car chases, while the audience lives the excitement vicariously through the inexperienced partner/comic relief. Stuber, although supported by the odd-couple chemistry between its two leads, ends up as stale as if it was made 20 years ago.
The story is about a cop, Vic (Dave Bautista), who’s obsessed with catching a psychopathic crime lord (Iko Uwais)—you get one guess as to what he did to Vic’s partner (Karen Gillan) to motivate Vic’s obsession—so he hires an Uber driver named Stu (Kumail Nanjiani; hence: “Stuber”) to go on a violent wild goose chase across the city to finally nail the bastard. (If Lyft had won the product placement, the movie would have been called Stuft?)
Screenwriter Tripper Clancy tries to give this rather typical premise a contemporary update on two counts, neither of which really work. First, rideshare apps are a daily part of our existence now, but apart from a couple of lines and references, Stuber can’t figure out an organic way of thematically synergizing these apps into the flow of the narrative. Stu could have been a regular cab driver and the script wouldn’t need to be altered much. Only during the film’s climax is Uber practically used as a plot point, but even then it barely makes a difference to the outcome of the scene.
Second: the film’s on-the-nose messaging about toxic masculinity. It makes sense for a genre usually associated with machismo, especially with Vic as an old-fashioned, no nonsense John McClane archetype, to break the trope down for a modern audience. The problem is that the theme comes across as shoehorned-in rather than an intended character arc for Vic. The film’s first hour is strictly plot driven, with Vic dragging Stu to one highly dangerous altercation with gang members and cartel henchmen after the other. Vic’s toxic behavior is barely even mentioned, yet suddenly the third act grinds to a halt so we can listen to Stu monologuing to Vic about how it’s okay to express your feelings and cry every once in a while. That’s as deep as it gets. The way the script deals with masculinity in the modern age becomes increasingly problematic when Vic’s daughter, played by Natalie Morales (a genuine movie star in dire need of a leading role) is used merely as a plot prop for two men. For Vic, she’s the embodiment of the “cop who’s married to the job and can’t spend time with family” cliché. For Stu, she serves as the obvious love interest due to being the only other woman in the story after he comes to terms with a crush (Betty Gilpin) who friend-zoned him a long time ago.
Apart from Bautista and Nanjiani’s comedic timing together getting us through such a by-the-numbers affair, the film gets tons of comedy mileage of how much Stu is freaked out by the violence taking place around him. Directly dealing with the real-life consequences of regular people being exposed to violence can derail any comedy, but such manic outbursts of emotion can also be irresistibly funny if handled with the right tone. Stuber wisely leans into this by having Stu violently throw up after a gunfight and constantly complain that he will need therapy for the rest of his life. Of course, the plot needs him to toughen up during the climax in order to save the day, so all of that character development is mostly, eventually thrown out the window.
It’s hard to understand why Iko Kuwais, who shot to international stardom after the two The Raid flicks, was cast as the main villain. The opening chase sequence does include some ’80s Jackie Chan-style stunts as Kuwais goes downstairs in a hotel using highly unconventional routes, but Stuber leaves him with shockingly little hand-to-hand fighting to do—a missed opportunity, especially considering our hero is played by ex-pro-wrestler Dave Bautista. Director Michael Dowse, who previously helmed the cult hockey comedy Goon, finds a decent balance between hardcore R-rated action and the lighter touch required from Bautista and Nanjiani’s mismatched dynamic. Yet with the contemporary ideas thrown into such an old formula, we should have gotten a fresh new take, as opposed to yet another serving of the usual recipe.
Director: Michael Dowse
Writer: Tripper Clancy
Starring: Dave Bautista, Kumail Nanjiani, Natalie Morales, Iko Kuwais, Betty Gilpin, Mira Sorvino
Release Date: July 12, 2019