It sounds like a can't-miss formula: Take imposing Guardians of the Galaxy star and former pro wrestler Dave Bautista and pair him with comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani for an old-school buddy action-comedy. Add in a timely ridesharing angle and you have the ingredients for a modern Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours. However, the only thing that Stuber really captures from those 1980s-era favorites is a mean-spirited tone complemented by vague misogyny.
The dynamic of the tough cop forced to team up with the timid girly man has most recently been explored in the deeply unfunny Ride Along movies, and Ride Along director Tim Story took that set-up to its uncomfortable, unpleasant extreme in his recent Shaft remake. Stuber isn't quite as irritating as those movies, but it's hard to root for gruff cop Vic Manning (Bautista) to accomplish his mission when he spends nearly the entire movie acting like a total jerk to everyone around him, all in service of carrying out a vendetta against the crime boss who killed his partner (Karen Gillan).
Even before Vic meets up with unassuming Uber driver Stu (Nanjiani), he's already been rude and dismissive to his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales), whom he's been disappointing since she was a child. Ignoring orders to take some time off from his relentless pursuit of drug kingpin Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais), Vic jumps at a lead from a confidential informant, despite the fact that he's just had eye surgery earlier that day and can barely see a thing. After some painful Mr. Magoo-style slapstick involving Vic attempting to drive his car, he decides to get himself a ride to his meeting with a dangerous criminal.
Enter Stu, whose day job is at a second-rate sporting-goods store run by an entitled bully (Jimmy Tatro) who constantly insults Stu's manhood (the movie's title refers to one of the degrading nicknames that Stu's boss uses for him). It doesn't help that Stu is hopelessly in love with his friend Becca (Betty Gilpin), with whom he's planning to open a women-only spin gym. To earn money for that new business venture, Stu drives for Uber in his off-hours, and that's how he finds himself picking up Vic on the side of the road and driving him to a warehouse in a shady part of town. Why doesn't Stu just drop Vic off and go on his way? Well, because there would be no movie, of course, but the flimsy plot excuse is that he's desperate for a good review to keep his Uber rating above four stars.
So Stu dutifully sits and waits while Vic investigates, and soon he's drawn into a dangerous odyssey to track down Teijo, held hostage by a rude, violent cop who first threatens his livelihood and then holds him hostage by refusing to hand over his car keys. Vic puts Stu in mortal danger over and over, for the sake of going outside the law to enact personal vengeance. That's pretty standard action-movie stuff, really, but it's harder to take when one of the main characters is constantly pointing out how unfair, unethical and borderline psychotic it actually is.
Stu is essentially a hostage for most of the movie, and his eventual bonding with Vic is more like Stockholm syndrome than genuine friendship. The script by Tripper Clancy is full of angry insults, as Vic constantly belittles Stu's driving, his career aspirations and his (lack of) love life. Stu gets a steady stream of texts and video calls from Becca, who's getting drunk alone at home after breaking up with her boyfriend, and more than escaping from imminent danger, Stu mainly wants to leave Vic behind so he can go sleep with his longtime crush in her moment of greatest vulnerability.
Clancy and director Michael Dowse (Goon) seem to be working hard to make their main characters unpleasant and unlikable, but Bautista and Nanjiani have enough charm to overcome some of the abrasive, shrill writing. Nanjiani in particular fires off a few very funny one-liners, which have the loose feel of improvisation, although it's impossible to say for sure. Bautista, who proved he could pull off dry comedy as Guardians' literal-minded Drax, is instead stuck with bumbling slapstick, and the joke of Vic's inability to see more than a few inches in front of his face gets old quickly.
With both Bautista and martial-arts master Uwais in the cast, Stuber could have at least boasted some strong action sequences, but Dowse shoots the action with chaotic incoherence, and anyone unaware of Bautista and Uwais' respective backgrounds would hardly guess at their formidable skills. The violence is remarkably intense and graphic for what presents itself as a lighthearted comedy, and none of it makes a meaningful impact on the characters. As their ordeal drags on, Vic and Stu come to appreciate each other's strengths, but audiences are less likely to feel the same goodwill toward either of them.
Directed by Michael Dowse and starring Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Jimmy Tatro, Mira Sorvino and Karen Gillan, Stuber opens in theaters on July 12.