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SXSW Film Review: ‘Stuber’

Kumail Nanjiani drives an Uber, and his customer — a desperate cop played by Dave Bautista — drives him crazy, in this breakneck action comedy.

Director:
Michael Dowse
With:
Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais
Release Date:
Jul 12, 2019

If not for the wonders of technology — and the world’s most popular ride-sharing app in particular — Vic and Stu never would have met. Vic (Dave Bautista) is an enormous bull-in-a-china-shop-style cop recovering from eye surgery who can’t see well enough to drive (or shoot) on the night of his big bust. Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) is a touchy, easily disconcerted Uber driver who can’t afford to get another one-star review. And “Stuber” is the wildly irreverent crash-test action comedy that throws these two polar opposites together for a night of shootouts, stakeouts, and bust-out big laughs, as Vic commandeers Stu’s puny electric car, simultaneously deputizing and endangering its terrified driver, who hates it when you call him “Stuber.”

Debuting to justifiably enthusiastic response at the SXSW Film Festival as a work-in-progress screening — though tighter and no less polished than any of the flashy, fully ready studio premieres that screened over the previous five nights — “Stuber” ought to be a big hit for Fox, which is releasing it on July 12, provided that some other high-profile movie doesn’t swoop in to exhaust the driver-for-hire gimmick before it arrives. That could happen, considering how chauffeuring stories have become all the rage lately, from five-star offerings “Green Book” and “A Taxi Driver” (South Korea’s foreign-language Oscar submission) to lower-end indie entries such as “DriverX” and “Ride.” Heck, even Denzel Washington’s “Enforcer” gave the job a chance in last year’s sequel.

And yet, while countless movies are capitalizing on the fact that Americans feel more comfortable than ever accepting lifts from strangers, the deliciously antagonistic chemistry between Bautista and Nanjiani — who come across as more likely to murder each other than to die at the hands of heavily armed drug dealers — fuels this breakneck buddy movie from director Michael Dowse (“Goon”).

For anyone tempted to dismiss “Stuber” as some crass case of product placement, know that Dowse doesn’t hesitate to cross lines in pursuit of a laugh, as he demonstrated in mock doc “Fubar,” killing off a seemingly indispensable character midway through. With “Stuber,” he doesn’t pull his punchlines either, showing a willingness to push the action at least as far as your typical take-no-prisoners Liam Neeson movie. (If Neeson should happen to release an Uber-based revenge movie between now and July, consider the “Stuber” parade ruined.)

His slick, in-your-face attitude is clear from the opening scene, in which Vic and sharpshooting partner Morris (Karen Gillan) think they’re about to catch the mastermind of a heroin-peddling ring in the penthouse of a posh downtown hotel, but are instead greeted by a series of shotgun blasts. Predictably, Morris won’t make it out alive, though Dowse doesn’t treat the scene as you would expect. Instead, he presents her as the stronger and more level-headed partner during the raid (speaking of raids, the duo’s most dangerous rival is “The Raid: Redemption” star Iko Uwais), while Bautista takes a beating before finally resorting to a number of improvised wrestling moves — crashing through a wall, lobbing a room-service trolly — that certainly aren’t sanctioned by any police playbook but look convincingly tough on-screen.

Flash-forward six months to the day of Vic’s Lasik surgery, which he irresponsibly schedules several hours before the big art opening of his sculptor daughter (Natalie Morales) — a contrived but just adequate enough personal-life subplot that emphasizes that overachiever Vic could stand to work on his people skills (something his supervisor, played by Mira Sorvino, also points out). Looking ridiculous in the temporary shades he’s been given to protect his dilated eyes, Vic can’t see his daughter’s gallery show, and doubles the insult by prioritizing a call from his new partner (Amin Joseph), who claims that a big drop is supposed to happen that day — which could be the rule-breaker’s chance for revenge.

Compared with Vic’s inarticulate powder-keg intensity, Stu comes across as a witty but easily-trod-upon wimp who juggles two jobs in order to earn enough to buy the affection of his friend-zoned dream gal (Betty Gilpin): working at a sporting goods store by day, offering rides in his newly leased Prius after-hours. As anyone who has tried the ubiquitous ride-sharing app can tell you, Uber has a knack for pairing weirdos, so it’s both funny and familiar to see these two incredibly different personalities thrust together for what’s meant to be a short ride. (For those who don’t know how it works, Nanjiani hilariously conveys the frustrations Stu faces when squiring around obnoxious clients.)

After crashing his own car, Vic requests an Uber and gets Stu, whom he strong-arms into driving him around all day as he chases one lead to the next in an ever more dangerous series of stops. Clearly a student of ’80s-era mismatched-partners movies, à la “48 Hours” and “Lethal Weapon,” screenwriter Tripper Clancy picks an assortment of off-the-wall spots — a gay strip club, a Sriracha-sauce factory, a veterinary hospital (complete with John Woo-style doves) — for them to visit together, emphasizing the absurdity by having Vic bumble blindly through each location.

Since Vic can’t see well, Stu is left to serve as his eyes, resulting in an almost vaudevillian dynamic in which Bautista embodies brute force while Nanjiani nimbly tries to direct the aggro cop’s rage in the right direction. They make for a surprisingly effective team — resulting in a bloody series of henchman-dropping headshots — even as the tension between them escalates, to the point that they wind up fighting each other back at the sporting-goods store where Stu works. That scene goes to show how Dowse and Clancy operate outside the formula, ratcheting up the subtext of why they don’t like each other until it becomes the film’s most satisfying throw-down.

It takes a certain finesse to stage such a confrontation in a way that someone as non-threatening as “Silicon Valley” and “The Big Sick” star Nanjiani can convincingly hold his own against Bautista (a former WWF fighter who also played “Guardians of the Galaxy” heavy Drax), and yet Dowse is up to the challenge. Even though the crime plot and villains leave something to be desired, Dowse crams the movie with satisfying fights — both the well-choreographed, knockabout kind and those that consist of nothing more than verbal sparring. Generally speaking, Hollywood comedies seem to be gravitating away from jokes toward more conceptual gags, and yet, Nanjiani knows how to deliver a perfectly timed one-liner, making the character’s zingers sound spontaneous.

One other detail that differentiates “Stuber” from your average action comedy: The movie embraces the real-world physics of gunplay, car crashes, and hand-to-hand combat — obviously bent for both dramatic and comedic effect. People die, often and quite brutally, while the characters attempt to pull off tricks they’ve seen in other action movies, frequently with far different results (the “Jaws” stunt being the best example). From a brand perspective, Uber couldn’t buy this kind of exposure, but it’s the co-stars whose stock looks most likely to rise.

Popular on Variety

SXSW Film Review: 'Stuber'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 13, 2019. Running time: 88 MIN. (without credits)

Production: A 20th Century Fox release and presentation of a GoldDay production. Producers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley. Executive producers: Jake Wagner, Nick Thomas, Jeremiah Samuels.

Crew: Director: Michael Dowse. Screenplay: Tripper Clancy. Camera (color, widescreen): Bobby Shore. Editor: Jonathan Schwartz. Music: Joseph Trapanese.

With: Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Jimmy Tatro, Mira Sorvino, Karen Gillan.

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