Much has been made of how Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox will likely lead to fewer films like Stuber being made. Teaming Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, this buddy cop action comedy happens to be the first R-rated release to come out since the merger was completed and it does indeed feel like the sort of film that they don’t really make any more. Well, they don’t usually make them this well, anyway.
In the film’s action-packed prologue, we meet Bautista’s hardcore LAPD detective Vic Manning as he and his partner (hello and goodbye, Karen Gillan) walk into an ambush that ends tragically as a result of him losing his glasses at a crucial moment. Six months later, Vic is still hounding Teijo (Iko Uwais), the drug lord who got away, but has also finally decided to do something about his poor eyesight, booking himself in for laser eye surgery.
On the hottest day of the year, his 12-hour recovery period coincides with his first good lead about Teijo in months. Despite barely being able to see, he charges back into the fray, press-ganging his understandably nervous Uber driver, Stu (Nanjiani), into being his seeing-eye driver and partner for the day.
It’s a premise with oodles of comic potential, and there’s no faulting either of the leads for making the most of it at every opportunity. Across a series of supporting turns, Bautista has carved out his niche as a colossal character actor, and this leading role feels tailor-made for his talents.
As a gifted physical performer, he gets a lot of comic mileage out of simply squinting in the face of danger for the duration, but he’s also funny and highly watchable as a damaged alpha male who hates asking for help of any kind.
Meanwhile, acting as the perfect comic foil to Vic’s unwarranted confidence, Nanjiani similarly relishes taking a lead in one of these. Outside of The Big Sick, his track record in R-rated comedies like Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, Central Intelligence and Fist Fight amounts to scene-stealing cameos that are the best thing about each of those films, so it’s great to watch him sustain that entertainment factor throughout a feature-length role.
As is standard for this particular sub-genre, both of these men have problems that only the other can solve, but it’s not quite as simple as that. In a post-Jump Street fashion, Tripper Clancy’s script is very arch about buddy cop movie conventions up to a point but never resorts to spoofing them outright. Beyond the usual clichés, there’s a generous exchange of gags between the characters that keeps you laughing consistently for the duration.
But inevitably, the film isn’t as strong in its staging of action as it is in landing the jokes. There are very funny fight scenes, as you’d expect from Goon director Michael Dowse, including an absolutely hilarious showdown in a sporting goods shop, but unlike his underappreciated hockey movie, it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.
For instance, as many others have remarked, this is yet another Hollywood movie that casts Uwais on the strength of his work in The Raid, and then fails to make the most of his hugely cinematic martial arts abilities. But far more pressingly, you never really feel as if Stu or Vic are ever in any danger.
That’s not the only way in which its generosity is a stumbling block. At a brisk 93 minutes, the film is in no way baggy, but it does have that problem that many modern Hollywood comedies have, where they shoot a lot of alternate takes and then want to use as many of them as they can in the edit. It’s not a line-o-rama, but often, it’s the all-too-familiar effect of a big laugh being diluted by another throwaway one-liner that doesn’t land as well.
That’s not to say it’s not fun in spite of its shortcomings. For the most part, Stuber is decently paced, but the ride is a little bumpier than it needs to be. Bautista and Nanjiani are firing on all cylinders and they’ve got a really funny script to work from, but the film never gets up to the relentless pace that seems to be easily in reach for those involved.
As a result, it’s tough to imagine anyone giving this a five-star rating. But then movies aren’t ride-shares, and in its domain of old-fashioned three-star action comedy flicks, it absolutely dominates the field.