Love them or hate them, the Fast and the Furious franchise is back for another round of ridiculous action and doubly-ridiculous but deeply earnest sentiment about "family." The Fate of the Furious marks the first in what on- and off-screen patriarch Vin Diesel has said is a final trilogy, with the series poised to end with its tenth entry in 2021 (also the series' 20th anniversary). The good news for the "love them" camp is that this ambitious plan is off to a great start: Fate of the Furious is arguably the best Fast film yet.
One thing that distinguishes Fast from other long-running action franchises is that the series' tone and mythology was crafted on the go, resulting in a polarizing mixture of styles and creative objectives. In particular, the previous entry, which said goodbye to Diesel's co-lead Paul Walker after the actor was tragically killed in a car accident off-set, seems to be a litmus test for what viewers want out of the films. Although director James Wan's choices were unavoidably altered or influenced by the tragic circumstances under which most of the film was made, 7 winked harder during the over-the-top action than director Justin Lin's Fast Five or Furious 6. For my money, the straight-faced sincerity Lin brought to sequences such as Diesel's Dominic Toretto leaping across a two-lane freeway to catch his amnesiac girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in mid-air became a crucial part of the formula.
The Fate of the Furious -- even the punny title is a perfect mixture of silly and serious -- enlists Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray, and the result is the most fine-tuned, high-gloss entry to date. Lin and Wan's entries were polished movies, but there's an air of maturity here (even though the word seems silly describing a movie where cars race a submarine) that the other films lack. For some, this might be a double-edged sword: the degree to which Gray picks up on the trademarks may come off as complacency to viewers who would prefer to see the series innovate than perfect the status quo, but personally, this feels like a distillation of all the the elements that made Five and 6 great into a single, relentless package.
The story picks up in Cuba, where Dom and Letty are enjoying a belated honeymoon. Based on Dom's delightfully ridiculous manipulation of a street race to turn enemies into friends, there's a sense there's no situation he can't control just by being himself, a theory tested by the appearance of Cipher (Charlize Theron). A world-class cyber criminal, she uses secret leverage over Dom to force him to help her acquire tools she says will allow her to hold the leaders of the world accountable for their actions. With Dom gone rogue, the remaining members of his team -- Letty, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) -- assemble under the supervision of Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new trainee Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) to try and figure out what Cipher's plan is, and how to stop her. Much to the chagrin of the group, Nobody also enlists an additional hand: former antagonist Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), whose family has their own beef with Cipher.
As a performer, Diesel has become inextricably linked to both the Fast films, and to his own goofy facebook page, where he posts delightfully inspirational messages and videos for his fans to enjoy. These things obscure his range as a performer: he may not be Daniel Day-Lewis, but he's got some dramatic chops. Cipher's hold over Dom gives Diesel a rare chance in the series to show off some of those chops, and he acquits himself pretty well. Some early buzz has pegged the movie "dour" as a result, but it's hard for the film to become maudlin when Johnson and Statham appear to be having a contest as to who can turn in the silliest performance. Statham, in full-on Crank mode, is almost certainly the winner, especially after a delightful shoot-out onboard an airplane. Fans will no doubt quibble over the sketchy shift of Deckard from murderer to ally (the screenplay, the fifth in a row by Chris Morgan, avoids explicitly reminding the viewer that Deckard killed the series most beloved character, Sung Kang's Han), but Statham's performance is such a hoot that it's hard to care. There's also Dom's secret motivation: the thread ends up leaning on a tired action movie trope, but the sting is eased by the fact that the series avoided it for so long (depending on whether or not you count retcons), and because the deficit that partially informs the trope in question isn't something these movies have a problem with (this entry especially). On the other hand, the movie could fairly be charged with underutilizing Theron, who has some enjoyable speeches in the Die Hard villain mode, but is holed up in a lair for most of the film, and waits until the climax to completely lean into the film's broad tone.
The climax in question, set on on an icy Russian tundra is the crowning achievement of this entry, and the series to date: a non-stop series of increasingly entertaining developments (no spoilers -- the film's trailers already give away far too much), each ridiculous escalation timed to perfection. Statham's action sequence, which comes in the middle, is just one gear in an entire Swiss watch of popcorn moviemaking that Gray orchestrates with ease. There is also a fantastic sequence set in the streets of New York that finds Gray accomplishing something that Lin and especially Wan never quite nailed: blending real stuntwork with CGI in a way that remains satisfying. The only thing wrong with The Fate of the Furious is that it never shifts from "satisfying" to "surprising", which may concern some people, given there are two whole films left. On the other hand,
Fate lives up to its title, aligning its stars in such a comforting, familiar way, it really does feel like this is some sort of bizarre family affair. Who cares about logic, physics, realism? Dom Toretto's world seems pretty nice -- unplug for a few hours and live in it.
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