Boy those crazy kids from “The Fast and the Furious” have come a long way in sixteen years. Where once they were mere thrill-seeking street-racers who only wanted to drive faster than someone else a quarter mile at a time and then unwind with a cold Corona, they have now apparently morphed into thrill-seeking James Bonds juniors, racing not just in the streets and not just for thrills but across icy tundras with nuclear submarines in hot pursuit to prevent WWIII. And it’s entirely possible you might read all that and say: Duh. This is common knowledge. Where have you been? Did you not see the six sequels to “The Fast and the Furious”? My answer: No. No, I did not see the six sequels to “The Fast and the Furious”. And so if you are hoping for a review in which the franchise's considerable history is used to place “The Fate of the Furious”, entry #8 in the apparently indestructible franchise, into complete context, well, by all means, and no hard feelings, look elsewhere. But if you are curious about what a “Fast and the Furious” neophyte might have to say about the new box office thresher, feel free to keep reading.
Please do not assume, however, this review will merely be head-scratching and rhetorical question-asking, like wondering why those characters I did not know and cannot name who appeared for, like, two seconds earned a round of applause from the audience. That was a tidbit for the real fans, obviously, good for them, and for fundamental newbies such as myself we thankfully don’t need much history to understand what’s happening or, more crucially, to glean the precise standing of various character relationships. “Fate of the Furious” principal Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) walks practically everywhere in the movie’s Havana opening with his arm around Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), visual shorthand for their romantic relationship. Roman (Tyreese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) crack jokes because they are comic relief. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard (Jason Statham) talk trash so they are adversarial, which accounts for the movie’s single biggest letdown. This duo spend the film’s first half like two boxers in the run-up up to a showdown, issuing so many threats that it can only mean a third act fight waits. Alas, the third act fight never materializes because the movie needs to briefly move one of them aside on account of an obvious He’s Dead feint and because the movie decides they need to make up and be friends. Boo! Hiss!
Then again, their eventual making up correlates directly to the movie’s overriding theme, one explicated several times just to ensure, I guess, that anyone like me with no real relationship to the franchise doesn’t miss it – namely, Family First. We see this in the movie’s standalone opening stanza, a nod, it seems, to the series’ roots, in which Dom settles a dispute involving his cousin by challenging Raldo (Celestino Cornielle) to a street race. The whole sequence speaks to the movie’s light tone, where one second Raldo is literally trying to kill Dom and the next second Raldo is all like “You’ve got my respect, you wacky guy”, and the innumerable extras function less as potential collateral damage than street race club goers just waiting for the checkered flag.
That tone goes hand-in-hand with the movie’s mononymous villain Cipher (Charlize Theron), cyber-terrorist extraordinaire, wherein her diabolical plan to acquire some nukes for all the usual reasons comes across as far less consequential than her blackmailing Dom into helping her acquire those nukes so that she can pit him against his brotherly and sisterly racers-in-arms. And this means that Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), a wonderful character, a vaguely defined government operative who comes and goes at his leisure and who I kept imagining in an alternate “Four Rooms”-ish film waltzing from spy movie to spy movie with various instructions for various action heroes, will enlist Dom’s own cohorts to go after Dom, family against family.
Trouble is, because we know from the get-go that Dom has not really gone to the dark side of the fast & furious force, all the inherent suspense of this twist is sucked dry. This leaves the myriad set pieces to do the heavy lifting. They mostly do, equally comic and ornate, stretching from a zombie submarine to a car chase in which one of the cars isn’t a car but a heat-seeking missile, which I imagine will be a NASCAR event by 2020, even if, at certain points, this insistence on bigger and louder sometimes makes it seem like director F. Gary Gray and writer Chris Morgan inadvertently crafted a sequel to “xXx” rather than “The Fast and the Furious.”
If too often Diesel is forced to go through these gone-rogue motions with a gruff joylessness that mirrors the fauxness of his going rogue, where the thing that winds up driving him forward, not to be revealed, plays less like a true augmenting of the familial stakes than a we-need-something-here soap opera twist (notice how a potential love triangle lets Dom off the hook because the movie makes the decision for him, a cheat that really grinds my gears), there are nevertheless still moments when his real emotions buried deep beneath so much Hollywood pomp and circumstance emerge. You can’t completely tamp down Vin Diesel, or Michelle Rodriguez, and when they crackle together, like post-going rogue, when they find themselves in a staredown by way of a Mexican Standoff, franchise backstory is rendered as mute as all the pyrotechnics, speaking a universal cinematic language.
Cars are cute, but nothing on the silver screen stokes the engines like human faces.