Time was, a movie like Stuber didn’t stand out as an utter anomaly in the Hollywood landscape. Michael Dowse’s buddy-cop comedy has a premise ripped straight from such classics as 48 Hrs., but with references updated for the 21st century. Vic Manning (played by Dave Bautista), a loose-cannon detective on the trail of a drug lord, commandeers an Uber from a mild-mannered guy named Stu (Kumail Nanjiani); the pair speed around Los Angeles and enjoy some jokey male bonding along the way. The film has everything you might expect from an odd-couple ’80s action movie, including shoot-outs, profane back-and-forths about each character’s masculinity, and an ensemble of supporting female characters who aren’t given a ton to do.
For years, this kind of film was practically a monthly offering from major studios. Now, though, the small and low-stakes Stuber feels like a welcome departure from the mega-budgeted epics that crowd theaters every summer. That’s not to say it’s good, exactly, but it’s short (a breathtaking 93 minutes!), packed with salty one-liners, grounded by two lovable leads, and comfortingly predictable—the kind of routine project that at one time would have dominated Blockbuster shelves for months. If you’re looking for a throwback to simpler, sillier times (with a dash of self-awareness about the state of toxic masculinity in 2019), it should just about satisfy.
Stuber’s main duo are the movie’s biggest asset. Nanjiani, a stand-up comedian who proved his superstar acting chops 1,000 times over in 2017’s The Big Sick, deserves meatier material than the shrinking violet he plays here. Still, he does everything he can to give his jokes bite, mocking Manning’s status as a macho relic of a prior era. Bautista, a retired professional wrestler whose movie career took off when he played Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, is arguably one of the most underrated actors alive—not because he’s some Meryl Streep–level thespian, but because hulking musclemen like him are so frequently dismissed as mostly visual presences. Bautista has both a light comic touch and a wonderful sort of soulfulness (his one-scene performance in Blade Runner 2049 is unforgettable). Sadly, the main thing Stuber demands from him is sheer size, but even that is something to behold. The mere sight of Manning (each of whose pecs is roughly as large as Nanjiani’s entire head) crammed into Stu’s electric vehicle is worth a chuckle or two.
The film opens with a clankingly loud action sequence in which Manning and his partner, Sara Morris (Karen Gillan), fail to capture the athletic drug trafficker Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais), leading to Morris’s death. Months later, Manning gets a hot tip about Teijo immediately after having Lasik eye surgery, meaning he has to chase his target around the city without being able to operate a car. Bautista wrings as much humor as possible from the idea of Manning being on the emotional warpath while physically stymied, squinting and blinking nervously into the camera whenever he can (in case the viewer forgets that he can barely see).
That quasi-blindness adds some juice to Manning’s interplay with Stu. But it also makes for a series of confusing action sequences, which aren’t helped by Dowse’s general ineptness with big set pieces. I loved the director’s previous movie, the charming indie rom-com What If, but he has trouble scaling up, and every showdown in Stuber is just a mess of cacophonous sound and clumsy editing (the opening chase, which is supposed to be full of pathos, is particularly hard to follow). Bautista can perform stunts and hand-to-hand combat as well as anyone, and Uwais, the star of the acclaimed Raid films, is a martial-arts marvel, but neither one of them gets a chance to show off those skills.
Stuber also suffers from a surfeit of pointless B-plots that serve only to highlight the talented performers being wasted in them. Natalie Morales plays Manning’s disapproving daughter, Nicole, who exists mainly to sigh at her dad’s addiction to his job and his brawn-over-brains approach to it. Most of Betty Gilpin’s role as Stu’s longtime crush is literally phoned in, through a series of FaceTime calls she has with Stu in the course of the adventure. The Oscar winner Mira Sorvino is practically anonymous as Manning’s tough-as-nails boss (though seeing her on-screen in a major release is nice). Maybe the only supporting character I really enjoyed was Richie, Stu’s airhead boss at his second job, who’s played by American Vandal’s transfixing first-season star Jimmy Tatro.
But Stuber doesn’t exist to have holes poked in its secondary plotting or its mise-en-scène. This is an action comedy designed to be enjoyed and quickly forgotten, a disposable summer confection that’s pitching itself to theatergoers on the strength of What if these two guys had to hang out for a day? Bautista and Nanjiani are perhaps overqualified for that concept, but they rise to the occasion as best they can, and their simple banter is better than any flashy gun battle that Dowse can cook up. Stuber is the kind of movie you wander into because it’s hot outside and the theater is air-conditioned; for 90 minutes, you’re at least guaranteed to feel cooler.
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