The summer box office oft never leaves enough room for any fresh air product to breathe through. Heavy franchise fare whose fans are either reassured or polarized aside, original standalone works are strikingly less common, compared to, say, five years ago. For that to be a major studio comedy, one R-rated, and one distributed by Disney (a Fox production inherited post-merger), any manner of expectations is thrown out the window, perhaps never to return. In Michael Dowse’s Stuber, the least anticipated form of original summer feature squeezes into a single spot or two on multiplex marquees, a somewhat apple-picked comic laugh-a-minute, mile-a-second blend of crass humor and loose actioner ethics. It’s very hard-R, yet still a bit quick on the trigger as far as a lasting impression.
WWE legend and Marvel icon Dave Bautista takes the lead as Vic Manning, a decorated, utility bulk-shaped LAPD detective hot on the trail of a major heroin operation. Kumail Nanjiani is Stu, a sniveling yet loyal sporting-goods salesperson compounding his income by taking on a few Uber rides at night. The film’s title, and a nickname that his offensively macho boss Richie (Jimmy Tatro) takes for granted should make sense rather quickly. Vic’s a pure family man who tends to bury himself into his work; the cold-blood murder of his partner (a Karen Gillan cameo that ought to have blossomed into something more) further complicated the need to finally solve the puzzle of an underground operation and, in turn, find the killer.
The day a major drop is initiated, of course, real life must get in the way. First, he has a Lasik appointment to clear his eyesight; and his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales), whom he’s rarely seen in months, is hosting a major art show, with much of her work on display. It’s Nicole who sets the wheels in motion, calling an Uber pickup that night. The driver ends up being a reluctant Stu, who’s only striving to impress his maybe-girlfriend/business partner Becca (Betty Gilpin) but gets the longest day of his life involving some hot weather, unwarranted death, strip club dressing rooms, and a brilliant fight scene involving sportsman’s gear.
Dowse (What If, Goon), and his screenwriter Tripper Clancy (Four Against the Bank) are a determined one-two power punch, balancing the raw candor of a Steven Seagal shoot-em-up with any formulaic 90s buddy comedy, and where the former tends to stand out better. They give Bautista a lot of room to just flex his acting and physicality muscles. Effectively blind after the eye treatment, he waywardly stumbles from scene to scene, a slightly diminished variance of the beefy, masculine image he’s reluctantly portraying. When in the moment, those of unbridled intensity especially, he’s absolute tops; fast to fight, faster to quip.
He is in strong company with Nanjiani, who can safely shake off the shackles of an unsettling one-note character in Men in Black: International returns to the comfortable yet frustratingly frantic co-lead department. Stu’s obviously not as manly as Vic, more the slightly cowardly type who wants to sit in the shadows, needing a moment or two to sort out his relationships. He and Becca have a determined working friendship, but his jealousy over her on-and-off with an NBA star who happens to be the spokesperson for their upstart spin gym business. The pair easily have much to learn from each other, on the grounds of life experience. Bautista remains ever the gruff, no-nonsense, often violent individual; Nanjiani the soft-spoken type, and when they clash it’s with all guns blazing.
For all its visual cache and breezy (while still stilted dialogue), Stuber doesn’t quite reach the bullseye until its ending. We need as much time as it takes for Vic to regain his vision for the pieces to come together. Everything leading up to the third act is perfectly fine, it’s just not as memorable as when Iko Uwais (Triple Threat) steps in to raise the obligatory baddie stakes. His role is well-cast, perhaps too well for a mid-marker Hollywood film, to the point where he was perhaps underserved. What does work the best out of all the stops Dowse pulls is the wonderfully edited fight scenes, with a myriad of tricks to keep the audience on their toes. It certainly charmed me on both of my preview viewings. A shootout in a sriracha factory, a chase scene set to Styx’s “Come Sail Away”, and the aforementioned argument/bonding scene in Stu’s 9 to 5? All of this would’ve had a more lasting effect a decade or so ago, but I suppose there’s enough nostalgia to be shared in the exact form of comic rhythm being expended.
I found myself laughing more than anticipated; the greater likelihood of facepalms and eye-rolls having been the expected precedent after yet another poorly executed summer blockbuster. Luckily, Stuber bucks that trend, but it’s not memorable enough to earn five stars the same way you’d give your Uber or Lyft for a much safer, more efficient ride. It’s 90 minutes of raw, buck-wild hilarity, with two fantastic leads who have had far more substantial roles in their careers, so suffice to say this won’t be considered among their all-time greatest work. Again, Bautista likely stands out a little better than Nanjiani, and that’s OK. I’m sure like many a star-driven comedy this year (or those of a decade prior), this will have earned a spot on my shelf in due time, perhaps along the same buddy-buddy road trip ranks as Dumb and Dumber. Pure popcorn-y group outing type stuff that most adults will enjoy, so long as the seatbelt is firmly fastened and the level of expectation’s set to mindful. (C+; 3/5 horns up)
Stuber is in most area theaters now; rated R for violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity; 93 minutes.