Buddy movies have been a staple genre since a 1926 silent film called What Price Glory portrayed a conflict between two dissimilar men that transformed into a deep commonality by the end. They are the ultimate in male wish fulfillment, romantic comedies without romance, visions of perfect friendship forged in hardship, self-sacrifice, and mutual understanding. An absurd, raunchy, violent, comic, and altogether fun new picture called Stuber succeeds in breathing new life into the buddy movie by toying with its clichés and poking fun at its absurdities even as it rigorously follows the formula.
The dissimilarities between Stuber‘s protagonists are extreme. One is an obsessed fifty-ish cop on the hunt for the criminal who murdered his partner. You've seen him before—he’s Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs, only played this time by the ex-wrestler Dave Bautista. The other is a gig-economy millennial, the ultimate in beta males, a hard-working nebbish sick with unrequited love for his best friend from college. Him you haven’t seen him before, not really. He's played by Kumail Nanjiani, the stand-up comedian who first made a splash as Dinesh on Silicon Valley before starring in and cowriting the autobiographical comedy The Big Sick.
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The movie opens with a crackerjack action sequence in which Vic the cop and his partner chase a martial-arts-master-cum-druglord through a downtown L.A. hotel. The druglord escapes them by literally leaping downward from floor to floor in the hotel’s atrium—a stunning piece of stunt action by Iko Uwais, Indonesia's answer to Jackie Chan (go stream a 2011 movie called The Raid to see Uwais strut his amazing stuff).
Vic is rendered nearly helpless when his glasses fall off. His partner (played terrifically by Bautista's Guardians of the Galaxy costar Karen Gillan) gets shot as a result. Six months later, Vic goes in for Lasik surgery, and while temporarily blinded, gets a tip from an informant that the druglord has a major shipment coming in that night. He tries to drive his car, ends up in a construction ditch, and only then calls an Uber.
Enter Nanjiani's character, Stu, who has been dubbed "Stuber" by his boss at an L.A. sporting-goods store because he has turned his leased electric car into an Uber to help support his indifferent beloved's dream of opening an exercise-bike studio. Vic knows no niceties. Stu knows nothing but niceties, offering his passenger water and food in a desperate effort to get a five-star rating. Over the course of the next 12 hours, Vic will essentially kidnap Stu and hijack his tragically leased electric vehicle as he tracks the druglord from Koreatown to Long Beach to Venice, leaving a trail of bad guy corpses along their way.
As ever, Bautista is just a joy to watch, with the potent combination of total physical authority and surreally perfect comic timing that makes his Guardians of the Galaxy character Drax one of the most memorable creations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (He was also oddly heartbreaking in the opening sequence of Blade Runner 2049 as a soulful replicant protecting the biggest secret on Earth.) Nanjiani matches him beat for beat with his original way of tossing off lines and asides under his breath that reveal he is smarter and tougher than he appears.
At one point, Stu watches in horror as Vic basically tortures one of the druglord's minions to get information—then shows the cop how to do it better by opening the minion's Twitter app and posting things about how much he loves Ryan Gosling movies. The minion is so horrified he gives up the info immediately, in one of a dozen unexpectedly clever moments in Tripper Clancy's screenplay.
As it happens, Ryan Gosling was part of a sadly failed effort to revive the buddy movie a few years ago when he played the beta male opposite Russell Crowe's hard-bitten L.A. private eye in The Nice Guys, a movie I had looked forward to and by which I was deeply disappointed (along with most of America). I had no hopes for Stuber, fleetly directed by Michael Dowse, and was delightfully surprised. That's the problem with praising something like Stuber; now there's no surprise for you, and I don't actually know how much of what I liked about it came from the surprise. So don't blame me if you don’t like it—I just warned you that I might have ruined it for you. But if you do like it, you must, of course, give me credit.