Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fast Past: THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS



No matter how ridiculous or improbable the Fast and Furious series became on its journey from humble street-racing Point Break riff to international heist pictures to blockbuster secret agent spectacles (what an evolution!), it always retained its emotional core. Until now. Even at peak jump-the-shark, when Seven had characters not only jump a sports car between the upper levels of two gigantic skyscrapers, but also survive multiple head-on collisions and a rollover accident down the side of a rocky cliff, it could still manage an emotional sendoff to the late Paul Walker. (Play the opening notes of “See You Again” and even the stoniest of gearhead hearts might melt a smidge.) They may have become unbelievable vehicular superheroes, but they still really cared about each other and even their most outlandish feats made sense in the context of the lengths they’d go to show that love. Alas, the eight installment in the seemingly unstoppable franchise, The Fate of the Furious, ditches its core consistency of character relationships for a misguided attempt to mix it up. It’s almost fun – starting with a silly street race prologue and some dark notes of discord – but then bungles the execution.

This time out Dom (Vin Diesel), the patriarch of the makeshift family, betrays them and joins forces with Cypher (the great Charlize Theron, a welcome if underutilized addition), a hacker bent on sending our team chasing her fetch quests. She wants the world to fear her, so she needs weapons of mass destruction. Makes sense. But the leverage she has over Dom to force him to help her, kept fruitlessly secret for the bulk of the runtime, only goes so far. Sure, it’s a tortured melodramatic twist, but the movie doesn’t milk suspense out of the betrayal. His friends pulled into the conflict (Ludacris, The Rock, Tyrese, Michelle Rodriguez, and Nathalie Emmanuel), chasing him down New York City streets and across frozen lakes, register only mild disappointment in his switch, and shrug when the truth of his double-double-cross is revealed. They’re too busy outrunning a nuclear submarine or avoiding fleets of technologically hijacked self-driving cars. Those are cool, goofy, over-the-top sequences full of revving engines, spinning wheels, and crashes both real and digital. But when director F. Gary Gray (who usually has decent thriller instincts; see The Negotiator or the chases in his Italian Job) simply cuts between careening car coverage and close ups of the people behind the wheels without thinking about what they’re thinking, it’s hard to care. The film has Idiot Plot in the extreme, keeping characters (and often us) outside important information while exhibiting no curiosity about how anyone would react in these topsy-turvy scenarios.

Screenwriter Chris Morgan has created a world in which every villain, no matter how horrible their actions, eventually becomes their friend. It made sense when undercover cop Walker fell in love with their ethos and fell in with their grey-area car culture back in the first movie. And it even (sort of) made sense that lawman The Rock would, despite chasing after them, begrudgingly call on their help in Part 6. Here we have Jason Statham, who has previously murdered one of their best friends and blew up Dom’s house, freed from prison by mysterious government suits (Kurt Russell and Scott Eastwood) to join the team. How do the characters feel about this? Other than a few joshing quips thrown his way and a one-scene threat of Rock-sized retribution, it fades away as he becomes just another familiar face behind the wheel. In this context, no wonder Dom can willy-nilly switch sides and its nothing more than a MacGuffin for the plot engine strung between the action. it hardly matters what anyone does because everyone can survive and anyone can be redeemed. 

Now the stakes can be nuclear war and the movie, aptly dropping the fast from the title, feels turgid and vacant and slow and, worst of all, just plain boring. This has been a series so good at retooling, I hope they can find a better route next time. They had such a good escalation going for six films, building on what works and pivoting before it got stale. But now it’s stuck in a futile need to top themselves with each outing, going bigger, dumber, louder, longer. The strain is showing. This one has apocalyptic stakes and yet nothing to care about. Characters and cars careen through cartoonish outlandish destruction without breaking a sweat, or an emotional beat that lands anything but false. To the extent it's watchable, it is because it's drifting off affection for its own past.

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