It seems like we get a buddy action comedy with a similar sort of formula every year in one way or another. 2018 gave us The Spy Who Dumped Me, 2017 had The Hitman’s Bodyguard and 2016 gave us what is arguably this film’s closest comparison—2016’s Central Intelligence. The Nice Guys is an infinitely better buddy comedy than all of these but that’s a tangent for another day. Stuber is the first real buddy action comedy of 2019—and much like Central Intelligence—it teams up a perennially nerve-riddled and well-meaning character with a hardened veteran of his field. The only difference, this one is disguised as an Uber commercial!
We follow Vic (Dave Bautista), a hardened LAPD detective who’s on the hunt for a ruthless drug trafficker—Teijo (Iko Uwais). Still recovering from recent Lasik surgery, with his vision rendered extremely blurry, Vic has no other option but to get an Uber to his necessary destinations. This one which happens to be driven by Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), someone who just wants to keep his rating as high as possible. It sets up a classic buddy cop scenario which is essentially a comedic spin on Michael Mann’s 2004 film Collateral. That film had its taxi-driver protagonist unwillingly transport an assassin throughout Los Angeles over one night. Stuber also takes place over one night; only this time, the person who gets into the vehicle isn’t a straight-up villain.
It wasn’t a good sign when the film opened with an action scene riddled with shaky cam and quick-cut editing. What’s more frustrating is that this scene contains Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan taking on world-renowned martial artist Iko Uwais—known for his brilliant turns in the Raid films and The Night Comes for Us. Uwais is an action master and those films are prime evidence of his incredible martial arts and close quarters combat prowess. The fact his talents are hidden amongst a sea of shaky cam, choppy editing and uninteresting choreography is a crime. What’s more disappointing is that this is the second Hollywood film in a row after last year’s Mile 22 which has butchered a chance to give Uwais memorable action sequences.
It’s clear director Michael Dowse—known primarily for his work on cult classic sports comedy Goon—wanted this film’s action to be gritty, gruesome and energetic. Unfortunately, he mistakes energy for largely chaotic shaky cam and fast editing. The John Wick series has proven that you don’t need shaky cam and rapid-fire editing to create atmosphere and energy within an action sequence. Stuber has an R rating and with that you’ve got free reign as an action director, but there’s not a single action beat which stands out in the film.
I could largely forgive its uninteresting action if the film delivered in its comedy. Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista are two talented actors in their own right. Nanjiani is great in HBO’s Silicon Valley and is fantastic in The Big Sick—which he also co-wrote. Bautista’s an entertaining comedic presence as Drax in the MCU and he’s delivered really good dramatic work in Spectre and Blade Runner 2049. It’s such a shame that Tripper Clancy’s script just isn’t very funny and wastes some admittedly half-decent chemistry between its leads.
Stuber is absent of any sort of wit, charm, visual and storytelling personality. The comedic dialogue falls flat because it goes for the laziest possible joke far too often. The set-up of Vic’s character and his blurry vision sets up a plethora of opportunities for fantastic slapstick comedy. The first scene after his surgery—which consists of him getting into his car and ploughing into everything in sight—was quite amusing, but the film just resorts to the character casually running into things every so often for the rest of its thankfully sparse 93-minute runtime. It’s a wasted goldmine of comedic opportunity. Nanjiani is really trying to maximise any bit of comedy in each scene, but even the improv, which Nanjiani is clearly bringing to the table, doesn’t hit nearly as well as it should.
Clancy places Stu and Vic on two ends of a masculinity spectrum. Vic fumes at Stu’s lack of overt masculinity by not ‘manning up’ and asking out his long-time friend—and crush—Becca (Betty Gilpin). Whereas Stu derides Vic’s non-existent emotional core. This resolves itself in exactly the way you’d expect, and isn’t discussed in a nuanced enough way to elevate the film above mediocrity.
In terms of plot, Stuber is so frustratingly generic. The key to a good comedy is that if you remove all the humour, the story still works. Comparing this to other far more successful 2019 comedies, Long Shot is a classic underdog romance about a regular man who falls in love with one of the most powerful women on the planet. Booksmart is about two teens in their final year having one crazy night together before moving onto the next phase of their lives. If you remove the comedy from Stuber, you’ve just got a boringly plotted, bargain-basement action movie. It has what is supposed to be a ‘surprising character revelation’, but you only see that character in one scene prior, rendering its impact to be null and void. It’s storytelling elements like this which could’ve been forgiven if the film simply delivered on its humour.
Stuber really is a waste of great talent. I did crack a smile a few times, but Bautista and Nanjiani have definitely been better. It’s hard to lay the blame solely on them when the script is this rote. I can’t say they’re not trying, but that doesn’t stop far too many jokes falling flat and the comedic potential of scenarios not being maximised. What the film does do is promote Uber very well, so as a commercial it certainly succeeds. But where it should succeed—as a comedy—I can unfortunately say it doesn’t.
Stuber is in Perth cinemas now!