Review: Charm keeps “Fate of the Furious” from stalling

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The final 45 minutes of “The Fate of the Furious” are some of the most gleefully ridiculous in the 16-year franchise. There are cars on ice, a Russian submarine and The Rock redirecting a torpedo with his bare hands. Miles above, another character gets in a blistering fight on plane, a gun in one hand and a baby in the other. Director F. Gary Gray delivers pure insanity, which is what the Fast and Furious movies do best.

It’s a welcome boost of adrenaline. Because in its earliest going, this is the first “Fast” film since the franchise’s re-invigoration with “Fast Five” that feels like it’s about to run out of gas.

This eighth go-round pits the franchise’s team of hackers, drivers and special agents against their father figure, with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) going rogue after running into notorious cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) during his honeymoon in Cuba. Dom betrays the group and makes off with an EMP device. It’s up to FBI agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Dom’s wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), hackers Tej (Chrus ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and the last film’s villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) to put their particular brand of vehicular mayhem to use under the command of the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell).

CHARLIZE THERON and VIN DIESEL in "The Fate of the Furious." On the heels of 2015’s "Furious 7," one of the fastest movies to reach $1 billion worldwide in box-office history and the sixth-biggest global title of all time, comes the newest chapter in one of the most popular and enduring motion-picture serials of all time.

At least, that’s the plot the best I can remember it. The truth is, three days after seeing the film, the details have faded. I’m a big fan of this franchise, but story has never been its strong suit. Narratives from the sixth and seventh films get mixed up in my mind and I’m already certain that “Fate’s” story will have completely have escaped me by Dom revs up an engine again. Most of the time, the “Fast and Furious” movies breezily careen between set pieces with self-aware stupidity. But with “Fate of the Furious,” you can feel screenwriter Chris Morgan straining to find a reason why the gang must be in Cuba, New York and Russia, and why we should care.

The franchise’s heart has always been the lunkhead bromance between Dom and Paul Walker’s Brian O’ Connor. “The Fate of the Furious” is the first of the series to be fully produced after Walker’s death, and the franchise messily shifts gears to find a new emotional center, alternating between oil-drenched soap operatics and meat-headed mayhem. Although Morgan’s able to find a compelling and surprisingly effective reason for Dom’s betrayal, separating him from the rest of the gang robs the film of the camaraderie and chemistry the fans enjoy. It’s not as fun to watch Diesel mope as it is to watch him be the head of this grease-coated family. The scenes where the rest of the gang tries to figure out their next move plod, as if the characters are waiting for last-minute rewrites to fill them in.

The common refrain is that you don’t go to a “Fast and Furious” movie for the plot, and there’s truth to that. It doesn’t matter that the story is unbelievable and stupid; the over-the-top ludicrousness is, of course, part of the fun. Since Rob Cohen’s first entry in 2001, the series’ appeal has been fast cars and daring stunts, something that’s grown exponentially in the last few installments. And director Gray, fresh off “Straight Outta Compton,” is eager to top everything that’s come before. But what’s confusing is how he drops the ball on what should be the film’s easiest sell in several spots. There’s an incoherent chase involving a wrecking ball that is filmed in almost total darkness. And a major set piece in New York involving hundreds of remote control cars is so weighed down by CGI that it looks like a video game cut scene instead of the visceral smash-ups the franchise is famous for. Gray was the director of “The Italian Job,” but he struggles to find the same zip he brought to that movie’s Mini Cooper chase.

That’s not to say there’s no good action. The movie opens with a fun street race through Havana that hearkens back to the franchise’s early days, and there’s a great prison brawl involving Johnson and Statham midway through. And while the New York sequence has some computer-generated missteps, the scene rights itself shortly after, turning into a destructive tug-of-war between five cars. Aside from the climax (which we’ll get to), this might have been the first “Fast and the Furious” movie that would have benefited from scaling the action back a bit. Watching epic, computer-generated mayhem is losing its luster, and in a post-“Fury Road” world, I would rather see some practical stunts, even if they’re done on a smaller scale.

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There are a lot of movies that feature big stunts and loud chases. What’s often overlooked by the series’ detractors, though, is that the secret sauce of the “Fast and Furious” movies has nothing to do with cars, explosions or brawls. The franchise is, quite simply, the most charismatic and diverse in Hollywood, and watching the cast interact is pure pleasure. “Fate of the Furious” brings that charm in spades. Dieselcmay be playing it a bit darker, but the actor is best when he’s asked to play sincere. Dom has emotional reasons for betraying his friends (sorry, family), that actually make sense for anyone following the series’ surprisingly complex mythology. Diesel isn’t an actor of the greatest range, but he’s very effective playing to the sweaty soap opera aspects of this entry.

Cast members here aren’t so much asked to act as much as they are tasked with locating the most appealing part of their persona and amplifying it. So while Ludacris’ Tej isn’t an especially deep character and I’m still a bit fuzzy on what Gibson’s Roman actually does, I don’t really care; watching the two of them bicker is as fun as ever. Russell saunters about almost giddy; he’s the coolest guy in the room, he knows it, and he’s having a great time. Rodriguez played Letty for so long now that she wears the character’s tough femininity like a glove, and Statham is a lot of fun as the slimy, angry Shaw. The once-and-future Rock is the roaring engine of the entire film, a hulking charisma machine whose energy elevates every scene he’s in. He’s a bounding ball of personality, and might be the only actor who can make the line “I’m going to beat you like a Cherokee drum” corny, funny and badass all at once. The franchise gained something special when Johnson came aboard, and I hope that the end of this film doesn’t portend that he’s about to bow out.

The new additions are more of a mixed bag. The team has a new hacker, Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey, who was also in the last film. But the character’s only attribute is that she’s attractive, and Emmanuel never brings the toughness of Rodriguez or the elegance of Gal Gadot. Equally bland is Scott Eastwood as Russell’s sidekick, Little Nobody. I understand the need to bring in a straight-laced hardass as a foil to the loose and uncouth team, but Eastwood just disappears alongside these big personalities. Someone a bit more acerbic and funny like Adam Scott might have been better in this role.

Theron, however, is a welcome addition and a worthy challenge to the gang. Hackers are notoriously boring characters; who wants to watch a bad guy type? But Theron brings an icy, uncaring chill to Cipher, and the reasons behind her crimes are scary even if they’re highly unbelievable. And Helen Mirren shows up briefly, which is always a treat. I won’t spoil who she plays, but I will say that she says the words “devil’s butthole.” And let’s just admit it: hearing Helen Mirren say those words is something we need in movies right now.

Like I said earlier, the film really fires on all cylinders in its final stretch. Gray hits the movie’s equivalent of NOS and gives it a boost of wit and energy. The action sequences finally find the right balance of stupid and awesome, and the reunited cast brings a welcome dose of charm to the craziness. Morgan also has a few fun narrative twists up his sleeve in the film’s last half hour, including a few fun payoffs that will delight longtime series fans.

“The Fate of the Furious” might be a bumpy ride, but it’s a fun one. It has enough energy and charm to hold together the rickety bucket of bolts that is its plot. I assume that eventually the series has to stall out or devolve into self-parody. But for now, I’m glad to call shotgun and go along for the ride.

 

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