The buddy crime comedy with a shadowy crime syndicate and unreliable law enforcement allies has become something of a cliche, and not one that audiences are flocking to endorse. Just a month after Shaft opened to general disinterest, the flat, barely funny Stuber appears to more collective shrugs. (The awful Men in Black International was essentially the same premise, plus aliens.)
For a movie critic, Stuber is a bit depressing, because the lead actors are talented and appealing: Dave Bautista (the teal-colored hunk from the Guardians of the Galaxy gang) and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick). They’re also non-traditional movie leads, and you’d like them to do well and shake up casting assumptions.
But Stuber is a poorly thought out, sloppily executed mess that does neither star any favors. It’s all premise with no narrative foundation: Bautista is Vic, a Los Angeles detective trying to track down a diminutive drug lord (Indonesian actor Iko Uwais) while nearly blinded from recent LASIK surgery — so he commandeers a meek Uber driver, Stu (Nanjiani), to ride around the city from one fist fight or gun battle to the next.
There are subplots about the women each man is standing up that night — Vic’s daughter (Natalie Morales), Stu’s would-be girlfriend (the criminally underused Betty Gilpin) — and Mira Sorvino shows up as Vic’s boss, but it’s all just going through the motions, with no flashes of creativity and countless alleged jokes that that are dead on arrival. The movie was clearly built from the premise up, with no one bothering to do the deeper character and storytelling work necessary to support the shaky structure.
This is screenwriter Tripper Clancy’s first feature in English, despite growing up and going to film school in Texas, and it’s director Michael Dowse’s first feature since the curious 2013 Daniel Radcliffe movie What If. I’m assuming they both work cheap, since neither exhibits any talent for filmmaking in Stuber, and a considerable budget was required for the movie’s high level of destruction. The action sequences — which are the make-or-break of these kinds of cookie-cutter movies — are often muddled here, and Bautista and Nanjiani occasionally lock eyes like they wish they had better lines to offer.
There’s an occasional set piece that’s diverting, such as a visit backstage at a male strip club and the early parts of a visit to a veterinarian, but they’re counterbalanced by periods of painfully clumsy dialogue explaining the barely developed crime plot.
It’s part of the premise of the modern action-comedy that good guys killing people shouldn’t rouse sympathy or condemnation and that the heroes’ actions, no matter how catastrophic, will have no lasting consequences. That’s fine when audiences are riding high, diverted from moral concerns by explosive action, a steady flow of humor or the sheer charisma of Samuel L. Jackson. But when a movie has as much dead time as Stuber, the whole thing starts to seems just creepy and exploitative.
Grade: D. Rated R. Playing at AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)