Stuber wears the look of a throwback buddy comedy. Its stars are a mismatched duo who are hilarious together as they’re thrown together in a relatively small-stakes action narrative that has them in shootouts and car chases. What makes Stuber modern and gives Michael Dowse’s movie its edge is how it provides conflicting examples of masculinity and looks for the middle ground between them. The comedy and the action still come first, but Stuber goes one step further by questioning both machismo and timidity in its male characters to find how both sides are flawed and that the mismatched duo needs each other not just to solve the case and save the day, but to become better men. And if that quest involves an extended fight in a sporting goods store, so be it.
Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) is a renegade cop obsessed with tracking down nefarious gangster Tedjo (Iko Uwais). Unfortunately for Vic, he’s recovering from LASIK and can’t drive himself anywhere, so his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) sets him up with Uber. Unable to track down Tedjo on his own, Vic calls an Uber and gets Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a polite, mild-mannered driver who harbors feelings for his close friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) but can’t get up the nerve to tell her how he feels. He’s also on the verge of dropping down to four stars, at which point he’ll lose his Uber job. The rampaging Vic makes Stu’s life considerably more difficult, and Stu keeps trying to ditch his fare, but is constantly forced to stick with the cop until they stop Tedjo.
Without overtly naming its inspirations, Stuber knows it’s in the vein of buddy comedies like 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon. And that’s totally fine! We don’t get enough of these kinds of mid-budget action movies in theaters anymore. They typically land on streaming, and that’s likely their future, so we should enjoy films like Stuber while we can, especially when they do action and comedy so well. Dowse is no stranger to comedies having done films like Goon and What If?, but he shows he’s got some solid action chops here. The opening fistfight between Vic and Tedjo really makes you feel the impact, and it makes strong use of a skilled martial artist like Uwais.
But Stuber is a comedy first, and Bautista and Nanjiani make a terrific pair. They both have excellent comic timing and know how to react to someone who is their polar opposite. Vic is a hard-charging throwback kind of action hero while Nanjiani is the mild-mannered man of today, confused and befuddled by the kind of action-cop that would have been commonplace in 1980s movies. When you throw them together, you get a nice bit of commentary on how much the genre has changed and why it still works.
The movie then builds in a bit of subtext looking at the kind of masculinity Vic and Stu represent. Vic is old-fashioned machismo of violence first, never showing your emotions, and being consumed by your work at the expense of your personal relationships. It’s a credit to Bautista’s charisma that we never turn against Vic even though he’s kind of a jerk. Stu is a trickier character, and yet his masculinity issue is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Because he never stands up for himself or shows any kind of courageous action, it makes him a doormat for other people. I like that the relationship between Stu and Becca isn’t that she’s a prize for him, but rather their relationship highlights how Stu is afraid to take a chance and hopes that things just work out for him while he badmouths any other guy Becca dates. Similar to Bautista, it’s a credit to Nanjiani’s performance that Stu doesn’t come off like a creep.
It would be easy to see the buddy action comedy as outdated or passé, but Stuber shows that all you really need are a couple of talented lead actors, some good jokes (I was laughing throughout the entire film), and a smart angle. While this genre seems destined for streaming based on the slow death of the mid-budget movie, Stuber proves that this kind of film still has a lot to offer. Other summer movies are looking for cutting edge VFX or complex mythologies, but Stuber is a pleasure based on comic chemistry and fun set pieces. Sometimes that’s more than enough.