I laughed way too hard at too many points in Stuber to entirely dismiss it, even if, as a movie, it doesn’t really hold together. The concept is simple. A tough-as-shit cop, recovering from Lasik surgery, is forced to hire a repressed, nice-guy Uber driver to escort him around as he chases down a ruthless drug lord. It sounds a bit like Michael Mann’s Collateral reimagined as a comedy, except that Collateral was originally written as a comedy, and then Mann had the good sense to turn it into a thriller, which is one reason why Collateral is a great movie and Stuber, well, isn’t.
But the pieces are there. As Vic Manning, a law-enforcement behemoth obsessed with taking down Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais), the martial-arts master and drug kingpin who killed his partner, Dave Bautista is well-cast. With his watchful eyes, taut mouth, and unreal physique, he looks like Lee Van Cleef swallowed a cartoon grenade. And Kumail Nanjiani seems like an easy fit for the sheepish Stu, who works at a sporting-goods store by day, drives for Uber by night, and dreams of starting an all-women gym with his best friend and unrequited love, Becca (Betty Gilpin), in the near future. (He gets the name Stuber from a mix of Stu and Uber — which is the kind of idiotic joke that makes you cringe when you first hear it, contemplate death the next time you hear it, and then slowly achieves begrudging, defeated acceptance.) Over the course of their contentious, blood-soaked evening, Vic will teach Stu a few things about manning up and Stu will teach Vic a few things about kindness and caring.
There is some promise in that predictably high-concept odd-couple dynamic and the insanely gruesome trajectory of their journey. The director, Michael Dowse, has trod this line between zany comedy and grotesque violence before; his underrated 2011 hockey flick, Goon, found both pathos and hilarity in its mixture of mopey humor and grand guignol hijinks. Here, however, that particular talent only really bears fruit in one set piece, when Vic and Stu, early on in their relationship, beat each other down with a variety of sporting-goods products in Stu’s store — tent poles and barbells and kids’ bikes and fishing gear — while hurling cruelly accurate insults at one another. It’s a familiar back-and-forth, but it becomes something new when expressed through creative, surreal ultraviolence.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie mostly coasts on its concept. Vic’s quest for Tedjo feels more like a loose hook upon which one could hang more interesting, funnier ideas, but the ideas never really come. Instead, what we get is a cop comedy where the uninspiring cop stuff takes over, to the detriment of the comedy, and the whole thing fizzles out; I laughed at Stuber, but I laughed less and less as the movie went on, and I cared less, too. The violence is eventually drained of creativity, as is, sadly, the humor, save for some stray good lines here and there. (My favorite, which Stu delivers as Vic first enters his car: “Let me guess. You want me to drive you to all the Sarah Connors in town.”) Even the obligatory pop song played during a key car chase (Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” which already had its pop-culture resurgence well over a decade ago) feels like a retread of a retread — so much so that I wondered if the movie at that point was trying to spoof cop comedies, which are themselves parodic by nature. But Stuber isn’t remotely nimble enough to pull that level of meta off.
Still, Bautista’s got real star power, and he keeps you watching. He’s doing a variation on his usual befuddled-giant bit, but it’s a good bit. Nanjiani, too, has got the milquetoast thing down, but he can be a far more cutting presence, slyly sarcastic beneath the mild-mannered veneer, and that dimension of his persona only shines through briefly. I can see a world where these guys star in a dumb odd-couple cop comedy that delivers on its promise. Some of it might even look like Stuber. There are enough good gags and building blocks here that part of me wishes someone would just go ahead and remake it right now.