Action-comedies have become such a relic of a bygone Hollywood era that I’ve found myself feeling nostalgic for them over the last few years. Films like Rush Hour, 48 Hrs., Bad Boys, Beverly Hills Cop, etc., are satisfying in their goofy plots, noisy action, and fast-flying zingers. Recent movies like The Nice Guys and The Heat are great examples of this genre. Michael Dowse’s Stuber doesn’t quite scratch that itch, but thanks to a handful of compelling performances, the comedy is enjoyable for superficial pleasures.
When his partner is killed while chasing drug trafficker Oka Teijo (The Raid star Iko Uwais), Det. Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) becomes obsessed with tracking him down. Months later, his boss Captain McHenry (Mira Sorvino) takes him off the case, telling him to enjoy his time with daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales). After undergoing Lasik eye surgery, Manning is unable to drive when he gets a tip about Teijo’s whereabouts, so Manning calls an Uber driven by mild-mannered Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) and forces him to drive him all day following the case.
Stuber lives and dies on the chemistry between Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani. The story is predictable, the action is competent at best, and the visuals are rather flat. These two lead actors, however, bring their A-game. Even though the movie, scripted by Tripper Clancy, leans on the tired juxtaposition between the meek Stu and the brick house Manning, the actors go beyond that and create interesting characters. Bautista, best known for his ace work as Drax in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has such a striking presence, and he’s able to comment on his brute strength and poke holes in his own masculinity. Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t turn his character into a pathetic joke, rather showing the strength of having “feminine coded” characteristics.
The movie tries to be about toxic masculinity and how its hurts everyone, and in a way it succeeds. I don’t think Stu is ever the butt of the joke, except it’s silly he tries to get murderous criminals to talk about their issues before fighting. Stu cries, shows fear, and in general lacks any know-how for traditionally masculine behavior. And that’s okay! The movie does critique Manning’s complete lack of awareness and compassion, as his obsession with his job takes him away from his family and normal human behavior. This erupts in probably the best scene in the movie, a fight between them that makes great use of their chemistry and the location.
While Stuber might have a workable premise, the execution leaves something to be desired. The action scenes are clumsy (one in a pet shop barely makes any sense), with wonky editing and poor spatial awareness. The plot is rote (you’ll guess the villain the minute the actor appears on screen). The three female leads (Sorvino, Morales, and Betty Gilpin as Stu’s love interest) are fun to see but are offered nothing much to do. Iko Twais does get to do some exciting stunt work, but he’s a blank slate as the antagonist—he’s barely in the movie.
Stuber is not a good movie, but it has some good bits to it. Bautista and Nanjiani are so good in this movie, and they elevate this weak material. There was potential for this movie to rise to the level of The Nice Guys and The Heat, not to mention the classics of the genre from the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s a good sign that these two actors are getting lead roles and hopefully Stuber can bring them some goodwill and get them better films.