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The Fate of the Furious

When Dominic Torretto and his crew started out sixteen years ago, they were pulling off convoluted automotive stunts to rob trucks full of DVD players. Now they’re doing the same to commandeer a goddamn nuclear submarine. It’s not that the franchise has gotten any more or less ludicrous, we’ve just gone from one extreme to another.

The Fate of the Furious is my least favorite kind of film to review because there’s really not much to talk about. You know what you’re getting, you know who’s involved, and you’re either on board with the franchise or you’re not. This is the eighth entry in the franchise, after all — if you don’t know what’s going on, it’s most likely because you just don’t care.

You’ve got the juvenile presentation of car races and scantily clad women, though that’s mercifully kept to a prologue sequence. You’ve got the outlandish car chases and action sequences, with stunts that no human should be capable of. Seriously, Luke Hobbs (that’s Dwayne “Don’t call me The Rock” Johnson’s character, if you’ve forgotten) is pretty much The Hulk in all but name at this point.

Speaking of which, Hobbs is introduced coaching his daughter’s soccer team, leading this team of little girls in a bona fide pregame haka. That alone was worth the price of admission. I don’t know if I will ever laugh so hard again all year. It was badass and funny and adorable and I loved it.

We’ve got the absurd dialogue, with a good mix of intentional and unintentional humor, and the word “family” thrown around like it’s the most profound concept in the history of ever. And of course the plot is ridiculous, with cars and computers doing things that should not be even remotely possible. Perhaps most importantly, the series still has an uncanny knack for integrating cameos and callbacks from earlier in the series, doing so in a way that rewards longtime fans without alienating newcomers. And while I’m obviously not getting into spoilers here, there are some really great ones in this movie.

The team has changed a bit since the departures of Mia and Brian (respectively Jordana Brewster and the late Paul Walker), but the remaining characters are mostly intact. Tej (Ludacris) is still the cool-as-ice tech expert; and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) is still the most brainless, annoying, ineffectual comic relief sidekick since Slippy Fucking Toad. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are still playing caricatures of themselves, and their banter is comedy gold.

Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) has stayed on after the events of the previous film, effectively playing the impartial brains of the outfit. She’s also the lead point on computers, with assistance from Tej, resulting in a nice bit of chemistry between them. Alas, this ends up becoming a perfunctory love triangle because Roman is a preening loudmouthed prick who has to make everything about him.

Another new player is “Little Nobody” (or “Nothing”, as I prefer to call him), played by Scott Eastwood. He’s the apprentice to Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), taking the established veteran’s place in the action scenes. As a newcomer to the franchise, he provides a fresh perspective/sounding board for the veteran characters to play off of. Unfortunately, the character is such a stupid, pompous, reckless twit that it takes a while for him to develop into something competent or likeable. Admittedly, he is the only character who tells Roman to shut up, which got a few points from me. But since Roman counters that by being even more annoying to spite him, it’s a wash.

Speaking of new characters, Helen Mirren — of all people! — pokes her head in for a memorable cameo role. I don’t dare spoil any more than necessary, except that she goes over the top in playing a British stereotype and she seems to be having a blast. But of course she’s not the most notable new character.

Cipher (Charlize Theron) is an interesting villain for the franchise in that she’s not a physical threat. She doesn’t have a fight scene or a chase scene, she never gets into a car, and I’m pretty sure she never even fires a gun. No, this is a world-class cyberterrorist who works through control, letting her bland and uninteresting henchmen do all the dirty work.

She forces her targets into impossible choices, makes them live with the awful consequences, and then goes “Look what you chose to make happen.” It’s pure bullshit, of course, but the psychological impact is devastating nonetheless. Plus, her ability to make and follow through on such terrible threats makes her a nicely effective villain. Even when the character is spouting pseudo-philosophical drivel, she works because Theron makes a meal out of what she’s given. And we all know she can do a lot more with less than this (looking at you, Snow White and the Huntsman).

This of course brings us to the main attraction: Dominic Torretto, played once again by Vin Diesel. As the trailers have already made clear, the movie’s primary hook is that Dom has inexplicably betrayed his surrogate family to partner with Cipher. This leads to the obvious question of why Dom would possibly do such a thing, and there’s no way I’m spoiling that here. Suffice to say that it would take something incredibly huge to make that plausible, and the filmmakers do not disappoint.

What’s actually far more interesting is the position this puts Dom in. He’s caught in an impossible scenario: Trying to impede his friends without harming them and trying to stop the bad guys without everything blowing up in his face. There’s some good tension here as we watch Dom try and think his way out of this, with the satisfaction of watching him exact revenge against Cipher when his chain finally slips loose.

Naturally, this also puts the team in a difficult situation. Absent Dom and Brian, the team is demoralized and leaderless. Sure, there’s Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), but she’s far too emotionally compromised to lead now that her husband’s betrayed them. (Oh yeah, Dom and Letty are married now. Maybe I skipped that part.) Ramsey and Tej aren’t leadership material and Roman can go fuck himself. That leaves Hobbs as the field leader, with the inscrutable Nobody calling the shots from behind the scenes, all trying to stop Dom without killing him.

But of course the real leader worth talking about here is F. Gary Gray, who does a phenomenal job in the director’s seat. You’d think that a franchise eight movies deep would run on autopilot at this point, but action scenes this huge and intricate still need a director who can keep everything running smoothly, and Gray brings the thrills. It’s remarkable how he uses close-ups, slo-mo, and various camera movements to keep things moving at a good clip and looking incredible. Though I wasn’t particularly fond of some close-up shots when it’s just the characters talking. Also that whole “flip the camera while someone gets flipped onscreen” thing gets held over from James Wan’s tenure, and that has to go.

The action scenes are appropriately epic. My personal favorite was a massive heist sequence in NYC, in which Cipher directs thousands of cars by remote control. On the one hand, this raises the bar to the stratosphere with regards to vehicular mayhem and collateral damage. On the other hand, it’s kind of counter-intuitive with regards to the product placement. “All these newest-model cars are stylish, offer a wide array of features, and can be easily hacked to drive on their own to cause all sorts of damage. Go buy one today!”

The Fate of the Furious is a perfectly enjoyable entry in the franchise, continuing to deliver more of what makes the series so much fun. It also helps that the villain is solid, the central hook of Dom’s betrayal is inspired and wonderfully delivered, and man oh man that haka scene was a thing of beauty.

That said, this movie continues to draw attention to how the characters (and their actors) are getting older and starting to settle down. Couple this with certain events in the movie — in addition to that title — and there’s a very real sense that the series is approaching its grand finale. I’d say everything’s in place to keep things going for another film or two, just so long as the filmmakers go out on a high note.

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