As the “middle class” of the film business erodes, leaving only major blockbusters and micro-budget indies, there are genres that most likely going to stop existing. Most genres will find some kind of foothold in the long-form storytelling of television or streaming, but some genres just aren’t made for TV. The R-rated action movie is one of those genres. Though they were already severely lagging before streaming took over, violent, foul-mouthed buddy cop movies in the Tango & Cash / Lethal Weapon mold don’t really work in a serialized fashion. (I guess they tried to turn Lethal Weapon into a show, which subsequently turned into one of the most drawn-out production disasters in recent TV history.)
All this to say that the slow but steady evaporation of the genre has made it into that most tantalizing of prospects: the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Movies like this obsess filmmakers, writers and actors, especially if they’re of an age where they grew up with said genre as a standard. Lethal Weapon wasn’t building on anything; it was just a movie about two cops. But any movie about a mismatched pair fighting criminals ultimately has to be, at least a little bit, about Lethal Weapon. It’s a tantalizing proposition for an actor like Kumail Nanjiani, who has spent most of his career fighting typecasting and comes from stand-up comedy, a fairly non-traditionally action-movie-oriented field — his very own Tango & Cash? Who could refuse?
What Michael Dowse’s film lacks in originality is somewhat made up for by sheer enthusiasm. We talk a lot about “movies that wouldn’t be made today” but Stuber is kind of the opposite: it only exists because the landscape is now so thorough devoid of movies like it.
Nanjiani plays the titular Stu, an employee of a sporting goods store who also works nights as an Uber driver in order to raise enough capital to help his best friend and unrequited love interest Becca (a wasted Betty Gilpin) open a women-only spinning gym. Stu’s shift takes a turn for the worse when he picks up Vic Manning (Dave Bautista), a grizzled and hard-headed LAPD detective who’s following up on a lead while more or less blind as he recovers from laser eye surgery. Manning has gotten a tip that the criminal (Iko Uwais) responsible for the death of his partner (Karen Gillan) is about to resurface, and he won’t let anything get in his way, be it the fact that he doesn’t know how Uber works, the fact that his daughter (Natalie Morales) has an art exhibition opening and the fact that he’s saddled with a partner who’s a panicky beta who’s afraid of guns.
Stuber’s story is nothing to write home about. It’s so generic with its shaking down bad guys and being at a warehouse in time for a drop and its moles inside the police department that it sometimes feels like a placeholder narrative inserted in order to fit in jokes and then never touched again. Basic ideas of revenge and becoming less of a shitty person are at play, which is also set somewhat askew by the fact that the characters are very thinly sketched. Besides their initial “quests” (avenging his partner’s death for Vic, telling his best friend how he really feels about her for Stu), there’s really not much else to them.
For a character-based comedy, the characters are pretty anemic, but that’s because Stuber is really more of a vehicle designed to showcase the particular, singular talents of its two leads. Bautista comes across as the anti-Dwayne Johnson, buff and terrifying but in possession of a much rougher and off-putting charm. He’s less of a superheroic figure than a kind of busted mess with a couple of aces up his sleeves; his abnormally large biceps are both impressive and a little bit sad. On the other hand, Nanjiani brings forth a variation on his usual persona: the confident nerd (this is, after all, a man who named his comedy special Beta Male). Stu has an overly defined set of boundaries and is all-too-comfortable being uncomfortable. What works best about Stuber is that these two personalities are not, in the tradition of the genre, at opposite ends. They’re pretty different, granted, but there’s enough common ground that the movie doesn’t entirely become about two polar opposites teaching each other how to be more the way they aren’t. That in itself is almost enough to separate Stuber from the hordes of winky post-’90s buddy cop comedies.
Stuber is also extremely violent and concerned with grittiness in a way that’s both refreshing and annoying in equal measure. It doesn’t do as much of the, “Oh my GOD that guy is BLEEDING holy SHIT” type of cringe comedy that’s so common in this genre, but it sometimes takes the concept of grit and translates it into chaotic action that doesn’t necessarily work. (This is particularly egregious in the scenes featuring Uwais — why have one of the best martial arts stars in the world star as the villain if you’re going to cut the fight scenes to shit?) Nevertheless, there’s a charmingly down-to-the-ground aspect to Stuber that actually hearkens back further than the two-fisted blockbusters it clearly pays homage to. Its shaggy action and snarky comedy is actually more of a ’70s thing, reminiscent of flawed but charming movies like Busting and Freebie and the Bean.
Ultimately, I think Stuber is more charming — warts and all — than it is actually effective at everything it sets out to do. It’s becoming increasingly hard to do reverent homages that also work on their own merit as the history of the genre becomes increasingly saturated. Stuber has many of the same problems that a movie like The Hitman’s Bodyguard has, but it at least pretends to know it. ■
Stuber opens in theatres on Friday, July 12. Watch the trailer here: