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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: The Fate of the Furious

* * 1/2

Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham

Even when grading on the generous curve you have to allow for the movies from the Fast and Furious series, which aim for nothing more than the simplest entertainment and the most instant of gratifications, the latest entry is just a bit of a disappointment. The Fate of the Furious (how is it not called The F8 of the Furious? Was that too obvious even for this series?) is an over-stuffed entry in a series that was already pretty well-stuffed and which pretty thoroughly disappears up itself by playing around with its mythology rather than continuing to build it out - to say nothing of the fact that its villain is such a non-entity that it almost seems like Charlize Theron just popped by over a weekend to film some scenes for the hell of it. But, still, it's about the action, right? The action is pretty good, though it leaves you wondering where, if each entry in the series is to have bigger action than the last, the series has left to go with the two (at least) films it has planned for the future.

Fate catches up with Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) while they're on their honeymoon in Cuba, during the course of which she speculates about what kind of father he will be and then, coincidentally... but I'm getting ahead of myself. Their romantic interlude is interrupted first by the arrival of Cipher (Theron), a cyberterrorist who blackmails Dom into working for her, and then by a call from Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who needs to put together a team for an off the books mission to retrieve an EMP from a military base in Berlin. Dom and Letty, along with Tej (Chris Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), meet Hobbs in Berlin, where Dom shocks everyone by double crossing the team and then disappearing with the EMP in order to deliver it to Cipher and then continue to do her bidding. In the wake of Berlin, Hobbs ends up in prison with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) but both are released upon agreeing to work for Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) under the direction of his protege, Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood), in order to locate Dom and Cipher, retrieve the EMP, and prevent Cipher from obtaining the nuclear launch codes.

So, that's the set up (mostly) in a story that will bounce from Cuba to Berlin to New York to Russia and feature car races/chases/free for all smash 'em ups in each. Since the plot is really the least essential part of a Fast and Furious movie, here's some of what you can expect (good and bad) if you haven't seen the movie yet:
* screenwriter Chris Morgan is apparently a fan of Stathem's character from Spy, whose bragging about his many amazing exploits includes that he "drove a car off a freeway on top of a train while it was on fire," as Fate manages on two separate occasions to put Dom behind the wheel of a car that bursts into flames and just keep driving it.

* Theron spends just about her entire time on screen on board Cipher's plane and her participation in most of the action is limited to looking intensely at computer screens and giving directions over the phone/video screen from some distance away.

* Helen Mirren shows up for some reason and they don't even let her shoot a gun, despite the fact that Helen Mirren is very good at shooting guns in movies.

* a nightmare scenario of self-driving cars that reminded me of the chaotic zombie horde scenes in World War Z.

* Statham engaging in a shoot out while carting around a baby in a carrier.

* Johnson leaning out of his moving vehicle in order to casually redirect the missile sliding by on the ice.

* A tribute in the final moments to the late Paul Walker that is no less lovely for the fact that you can see it coming from a mile away.

* The events of the previous two films are retconned so that Cipher is revealed to have been the one pulling the strings behind everything, which makes no damn sense at all if you've seen the sixth and seventh movies but means that Statham's Deckard can return as part of the team in the next installments because the bad things that he did (like, I dunno, murdering Han, almost killing Hobbs, almost killing Dom, etc.) were things that he was forced to do.

* But most of the actual "plot" parts of the film will leave you desperately trying to remember exactly what happened in the last films, because even when you don't remember every little detail the "twists" in this film don't sit right. I'm talking specifically about the information that Cipher uses to blackmail Dom, because just when the hell could that have happened given how things play out at the end of 6 and during the course of 7?

The jumbling up of the already established narrative is meant to make the film's villain seem more formidable, which wouldn't be necessary if she actually seemed at all formidable. Theron is a great actress but Cipher is, unfortunately, a cipher and her master plan doesn't really make a lot of sense. Her stated goal is to gain control of nuclear arms in order to keep the world's powers in check with the threat that she might use them if a leader/country steps out of line... which may have (but still really wouldn't) made sense in the 2016 world when the film was made, but doesn't pass muster in a 2017 world where the most powerful leader behaves as though he took the Joker's "agent of chaos" speech as a lesson in diplomacy. It doesn't help anything that every time the film cuts to Cipher on her plane during the grand finale she looks like she's on the verge of bursting into tears.

On the other hand the action, which is what you really go to these movies for, is pretty solid and ensures that the "fun" half of the "dumb fun" designation remains dominant. The "zombie car" sequence, in which Cipher and her team of hackers take over every car in mid-town Manhattan is chaotic fun and the big finale, in which the team find themselves racing across the ice in Russia and doing battle with a submarine being controlled by Cipher, is pretty spectacular. But, again, where do you go from there? The films, which started out as a story about street racing, have now grown to the point of being about saving the world from nuclear arms. The whole production gets so much bigger, the narrative stakes so much higher, with each outing that the only trajectory that makes sense going forward is if the series builds to a cross over with Transformers so that the fate of the universe can be on the line and the cars can finally fight back.

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