Stuber feels almost revolutionary in a summer where every film seems to have earth-shattering stakes and where the simple pleasures of a good belly laugh, and solid chemistry between actors happy to be there seem like the movie staples of a bygone era. To whip out an old critic’s cliché, they really don’t make them like this much anymore. The era of the mid-range budgeted action comedy feels like a time long past, and that is a loss for audiences. Not everything has to be a Happening. Sometimes sitting down to the joys of a fun action romp, full of great jokes and characters you want to spend time with, can be even more satisfying than watching superheroes save the planet or giant monsters duking it out in some urban landscape.
Stuber has plenty of surprises in its lean 90 or so minutes, but the one that should have clued me in that I was in for a good time is the film’s director, Michael Dowse. Michael Dowse knows good comedy as well as action, and if you are unfamiliar with his film Goon, you should quit reading right now and go watch it. It, like Stuber, feels like a relic in this day and age – a feelgood rated R sports comedy that doesn’t skimp on either the jokes or the brutal action. Neither does Stuber; an opening action sequence as rough-and-tumble narcotics cop Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) and his partner track down drug lord Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais) ups the ante on the action as well as the stakes. When their arrest of Tedjo ends badly, Manning becomes obsessed with taking him down. Six months later, a break opens in the case. Manning, suffering from vision-corrective laser surgery and removed from working the case by his boss Angie McHenry (Mira Sorvino), is forced to hire an Uber driven by Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) to go after Tedjo. Stu is unequipped to deal with suddenly dropping everything to assist Manning, and as the day progresses, Manning becomes more desperate to catch Tedjo and Stu becomes more desperate to get away from Manning.
Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani are dynamite together – Bautista has the ability to roll with every joke Nanjiani lobs his way and is able to lob back a few himself. He has a charm and a wit about him that keeps the comedy clicking, while he is also unafraid of looking ridiculous when the scene calls for it. There’s an earnestness to his screen presence that I find very fun to watch. The more exasperated Manning gets with Stu, the funnier Bautista gets. Nanjiani’s hilarious as well; audiences might miss a joke for all the laughter but never fear, another one’s coming right down the pipe, and Nanjiani mines Stu for every bit of humor and pathos that he can. Stu’s a bit of a loser, but he potentially can break out of that situation; his business partner Becca (Betty Gilpin) has just broken up with her boyfriend, and Stu, deeply in love with her, sees an opportunity, if only Manning would just get out of his car and out of his life.
Dowse doesn’t skip on the action either. Iko Uwais is one of the best action stars in the world, and although he’s playing a villain here, he’s giving it just as much as he does in films like The Raid and The Night Comes for Us. He even seems to be in on the joke. The fight scenes, shootouts, and chases are shot with real joy and excitement, so even between the laughs, Stuber remains just as riveting and thrilling. There’s a real sense of camaraderie between Bautista and Nanjiani that is infectious and a pleasure to experience. We can see how this will play out practically from space, but that makes it no less fun, and the way Bautista and Nanjiani get under each other’s skin is a constant source of laughs.
Not every film coming from Hollywood these days has to break the bank when it comes to its budget, and not every film has to explode box office records on every opening weekend. Not that Stuber shouldn’t do well, but when every movie that opens has to shift the paradigm in some way, it becomes exhausting for everyone. There has to be a place in this increasingly crowded movie landscape for movies like this, or The Nice Guys, or Booksmart – films that are best enjoyed in a theater, with a crowd having a good time without it becoming an Event. Back in previous decades, movies like Stuber were everywhere, and perhaps the market became saturated with them, but that doesn’t mean a perfectly enjoyable action comedy shouldn’t do well. With the bloated budgets that seemingly are everywhere in Hollywood these days, you would think that studios would embrace a movie like this, if for nothing else that it should be easier to find a profit. There should be plenty of room in the megaplexes for a movie with a smart script, actors willing to have fun and roll with the story, and a solid director who isn’t pre-visualizing every action sequence to death on a computer monitor somewhere. Stuber is immensely satisfying entertainment, and deserves to be heard amid the cacophony of every superhero extravaganza or the next Disney “live-action” remake. Stuber is a blast. We need more summer movies like this.