Editor’s Notes: The Fate of the Furious opens in wide theatrical release today, April 14th.
Not all superheroes wear capes, cowls, or even spandex. Some superheroes wear sleeveless tees, shave their heads, and drive muscle cars into gravity- and logic-defying leaps of faith over and across a moving submarine. That ridiculous money shot, of course, comes courtesy of director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, The Negotiator, Set It Off, Friday), veteran screenwriter Chris Morgan, and a seasoned cast and crew on their either go-around in the Fast & Furious series, The Fate of the Furious. Spoiler alert: The “fate” in the title doesn’t refer to the individual or collective fates of the characters, but to a never-ending series that began almost two decades ago with a Point Break knock-off starring two little known actors, Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker. In the real world, Walker passed away prematurely in a single-car crash several years ago, but in the reel one, his character, Brian O’Conner, lives on offscreen in blissful, peaceful retirement on a Southern California beach with his family.
. . . Too often, though, The Fate of the Furious gets bogged down in underwritten, exposition-heavy dialogue scenes.
Diesel, however, is still front and center, the literal face of the franchise unlikely to end in the near or distant future. When we catch up with Diesel’s character, Dominic “Dom” Toretto, he’s enjoying a well-earned honeymoon with the love of his car-loving life, Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), in Havana, Cuba. Before long, though, Dom finds himself in an illegal car race that ends with a win for Team Dom but with his car – actually his cousin’s old beater – a complete write-off. Dom, however, has gained something more valuable than his opponent’s pink slip: He’s turned a potential adversary into a future ally. In the Fast & Furious universe, masculinity isn’t defined by the size of your pecs (unless, of course, you’re Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), but on whether you can hold your own in an illegal car race or a bare-knuckle brawl. It’s less toxic masculinity, though, than a live-action cartoon version of masculinity (i.e., it’s all good).
Dom and Letty’s back-to-basics lifestyle, though, doesn’t last long. Cipher (Charlize Theron), a tall, blonde-haired cyber-terrorist with a murky agenda and something of personal value to Dom, convinces Dom to ditch Letty and Team Dom and join her as her Number 2 henchman, but not before Dom goes along with former-foe-turned-friend Luke Hobbs’ (Johnson) super-secret mission impossible to retrieve an EMP device from a Berlin warehouse. All goes according to plan until Dom betrays Luke and his team, absconding with the weapon while a distraught Letty looks on. Hobbs ends up in a black-site prison across from Team Dom’s worst enemy, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Hobbs and Shaw want nothing more than to tear each other to pieces, but Hobbs’ superior, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), has an entirely different idea in mind: Join forces to take down Dom and Cipher.
On the surface, that’s fine, but it also makes The Fate of the Furious feel less like an entry in the Fast universe and more like a stealth G.I. Joe sequel . . .
Turning Deckard, the villain responsible for the death of one of Team Dom’s longtime members, Han (Sung Kang), will rankle even the most diehard of Fast & Furious fans (as it should). Turning a villain into a hero in the space of two films isn’t necessarily unusual, but turning a villain who offed a fan-favorite character into a hero with barely a mention of said fan-favorite character or without the obligatory redemption arc shows a lack of respect from the producers behind the Fast & Furious series. The counter-argument – that this isn’t a series to take seriously, especially given the soap opera theatrics involved in every entry, including Letty’s presumed death, resurrection, and amnesia – certainly has some merit, but in a series that’s dependent as much on audience affection for returning characters as it is on the increasingly absurd, if memorable, car stunts, it’s far weaker on second glance. Whatever the ill-conceived rationale, though, by the time The Fate of the Furious rolls into its obligatory sit-down meal with the surviving characters, Deckard has become a full and active member of Team Dom. It helps too that they give Statham-as-Deckard a late-film action scene that distills what fans love about the series so much: action plus humor equals audience delight. Too often, though, The Fate of the Furious gets bogged down in underwritten, exposition-heavy dialogue scenes or finding an excuse – usually a thin, underdeveloped one – for the team to pack up and change locations (from Berlin to New York to the Russian Arctic) between sub- or faux-Bond action heroics.
With Dom allied with Cipher for most of The Fate of the Furious’ running time, Hobbs emerges as the de facto leader of Team Dom. On the surface, that’s fine, but it also makes The Fate of the Furious feel less like an entry in the Fast universe and more like a stealth G.I. Joe sequel. Adding Deckard into the mix predictably leads to less screen time for core Team Dom members, including the comic-relief duo of Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Team Dom’s resident hacker and Cipher’s natural foil. Pearce and Parker exchange the obligatory digs at putdowns at each other’s expense, but they repeatedly fall flat, while Ramsey’s left on computer/console/head nodding duty. Even Cipher gets the short end of the proverbial stick. Given Theron’s fierce, ferocious performance as Furiosa in the last Mad Max entry, it’s surprising, not to mention disappointing, that Gray and Morgan relegate Cipher to airplane duty, leaving her stuck inside her hi-tech, high-flying command center. Maybe next time – and there will be a next time as Cipher isn’t set up as a one-off (super) villain – we’ll get a female villain who does more than talk in a soft whisper while she’s surrounded by brightly lit computer screens and surveillance monitors.
Moviegoers haven’t exactly flocked to the Fast & Furious series for deep, complex characters, of course. While characters matter superficially in the Fast universe, it’s putting those characters in increasingly absurd, ludicrous situations, preferably with high-end sports and/or muscle cars and like its predecessors, The Fate of the Furious certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score, though it’s hard to imagine where the next entry will go (maybe outer space, as some semi-serious critic-fans have suggested). Gray shoots and edits with the same hyperactive style that Justin Lin brought to the series, though he seems to have a less firm grasp on spatial geography than Lin or James Wan did. That just means, though, that blinking during set pieces should be kept to a minimum (same as it ever was when it comes to American-made action films).
Moviegoers haven’t exactly flocked to the Fast & Furious series for deep, complex characters, of course. While characters matter superficially in the Fast universe, it’s putting those characters in increasingly absurd, ludicrous situations, preferably with high-end sports and/or muscle cars and like its predecessors, The Fate of the Furious certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score, though it’s hard to imagine where the next entry will go.