YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Stuber / The Art of Self-Defense
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
Sometimes you just want to shut off your brain for 90 minutes and immerse yourself in ass-kickery and belly laughs. In modern times, that type of film has become more and more rare, as the elusive formula that made movies like Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, Midnight Run, and even Hot Fuzz and Rush Hour, such enduring classics has remained hidden from most filmmakers. So what makes one work and another fall flat on its ass? I think a big part of it is respect for both components—the action and the comedy—meaning that they need to complement each other and not allow one to overwhelm the other.
With the release of Stuber, both writer Tripper Clancy and director Michael Dowse seem to home in on this concept with a modern take and a nostalgic sensibility. Dowse, known for raunchy fare such as Hulu’s Future Man and the 80’s throwback Take Me Home Tonight, has the pedigree to pull it off. Because aside from holding its own as a solid entry in the action-comedy pantheon, Stuber is also a loving homage to some of the great tropes of the genre. Along with a number of general callbacks, I counted homages to movies such as Commando, Terminator, and every John Woo film. It all demonstrates the loving care the creators have taken to make a funny and exhilarating adventure for contemporary audiences and aficionados alike.
The basic premise of the film is classic odd-couple friction, as hard-ass detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) is forced to enlist mind-mannered pushover Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) in taking down Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais), the notorious gangland criminal who killed his partner. Classic! But there’s a nice bit of role reversal as Manning finds himself in an unusual and frustrating position of vulnerability after having morning LASIK surgery and subsequently being unable to see, much less drive. And so, desperate to keep his rating up, Uber driver Stu initially sets aside his innate anxiety to tag along on the adventure; and the deeper his involvement gets, the more it challenges him to rise up with untapped courage, confidence, and self-respect. The mismatched pair is naturally perfect for each other’s needs, and while that’s certainly obvious to the audience, it never feels so heavy handed that is detracts from enjoying the hilarious—and deadly—shenanigans.
Much of that is because of the likability of stars Nanjiani and Bautista. Nanjiani has been making great strides into the mainstream consciousness with work on everything from X-Files to Silicon Valley, but received extensive accolades for his writing and performing in 2017’s The Big Sick. His comedy pedigree is overwhelmingly impressive, with a smart, snarky style just shy of brash. As Stu, Nanjiani gets the chance to stay true to his comedy strengths while developing a real and relatable character. Poor Stu is a people pleaser, burying his own desires in order to hopefully ingratiate himself with friends and strangers alike, especially the unrequited love of business partner Becca (Glow’s Betty Gilpin). The nebbish, everyman quality is perfectly relatable, though Nanjiani still manages to quip his way through even the toughest situations, often at the hilarious expense of would-be-buddy Bautista.
The big man himself is no slouch, as Bautista has been stepping up his own comedy game for the last several years. Along with increasingly funnier turns as Drax in the Marvel films, Bautista has also dipped his toe into various other genres, from drama in the likes of Blade Runner 2049 and Hotel Artemis (a film I highly recommend) to plenty of action alongside men like Stallone in the Escape Plan franchise. Here, Bautista really gets to flex his muscles (zing!) as a man struggling to connect with the people around him—particularly his daughter—due in no small part to his obsession with taking down Tedjo.
As a child of the 80’s, I not only love to see musclebound gods smacking down evil-doers, I get a particular glee from watching those gods poke fun at themselves. Whether it’s Arnold in Kindergarten Cop or Dwayne Johnson as a Tooth Fairy, the idea just seems a natural fit and gets me into the theatre every time. Bautista is well aware of this and shows no ego or qualms about putting his image through the ringer. There are a few hilarious running gags about his size and strength that wink to the audience, but there’s also a clear intent to take the big guy down a peg or two, such as giving Manning a bit of paunch around the midsection. It all works for the aesthetic and dynamic that makes the action part believable and provides endless fodder for the mismatched comedy.
One intrinsic aspect of the genre is the need for a formidable bad guy. For the shadowy Tedjo, we have ever-soaring action star Iko Uwais, the Indonesian martial artist who came to prominence with 2011’s The Raid and recently in the action epic Triple Threat (action fans, definitely check that one out!). I’ve been a big fan of Uwais for a while now, and his performing skills have increased substantially over the years. While this may be his widest release to date (outside an obscure cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), he doesn’t get a whole lot to do here outside the physical, which is one of the few disappointments of the film. That being said, sometimes the threat is best left enigmatic, and certainly it allows for plenty of time left to focus on our befuddled heroes.
Stuber scratches that itch for a rollicking good time, delivering the goods on both the action and comedy fronts and should satisfy fans of either genre. But make no mistake, like its classic brethren, there’s a reason for the R-rating, and audiences should expect plenty of blood splatter and raunchy jokes. In fact, based on a few trailers I was initially a little reticent that the humor might push too far for nothing more than shock value. But while there’s plenty you wouldn’t see coming, I was happily relieved by the astute level of humor. Once again, the filmmakers managed that proper balance, and everything flows quite naturally as one. That being said, if you’re shy about an F-bomb or a flashing penis, you might consider skipping this one.
For the rest of us, Stuber races to the finish line with ease and is a surefire shot of silly joy when we need to just let off a little steam. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, and don’t forget to leave a five-star rating.
YANG: The Art of Self-Defense
One of the greatest things about independent film is the opportunity it presents for experimentation. Stories and perspectives that might otherwise never be given voice have the chance to reach an audience desperate to hear and see something new that challenges them to think and engage rather than simply observe. And for filmmakers, it’s a chance to cross genres, break rules, and skew preconceptions.
Rising influencer Bleeker Street productions has taken the gamble on the substantial release of writer-director Riley Stearns’ new dark comedy The Art of Self Defense, and I hope this little gem is able to find the audience it deserves.