By David Poland email@example.com
Review: The Fate of the Furious (spoiler-free)
A lot of people complain about the current state of cinema.
I don’t tend to buy it. Change is uncomfortable for people and whatever “the kids” like often brings the wagging fingers of more, uh, mature folks.
I gave up on the Fast/Furious franchise a few films back… the giant safe being dragged around Brazil, I believe it was. Fast Five. I didn’t feel Justin Lin had broken the foundations of cinema. I was done. I enjoyed the actors, including the addition of The Rock and whatever Hot Chick o’ the Sequel they had added, but there was enough in the world to keep me amused without the same gags over and over and stunt/effects that were over the top.
Michelle Rodriguez is resurrected in Furious 6. Paul Walker died too young before Furious 7 was done, but ends the movie alive and retired while they added another international action star to the mix, Jason Statham.
So after two films off, I figured it was time to try it again. I have fond memories of screening the first The Fast & The Furious fairly early at Universal 16 years ago and liking it a lot more than I expected to at the time. (As a director, Rob Cohen had burnt away any of my admiration for Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story with Daylight and The Skulls. TF&TF felt like him taking a step back to cleaner, simpler filmmaking. xXx and Stealth would soon send him back onto my least admired director list.)
I found The Fate of the Furious such a shocking mess of extreme, belief-unsuspending CG-driven crap that I couldn’t quite believe it. So much so that I actually DVRed Furious 7 that very night to see whether Justin Lin had taken them down this road to this degree over the two films I missed.
He had not. James Wan took over with #7. But he hadn’t either.
There is a lot of crazy stuff in Furious 7, but it’s not cars-on-ice-being-chased-by-a-submarine unbelievable. Or should I say, stupid?
I was fascinated by this ongoing mega-franchise as it represents so much of what has been going on in the industry in the 8 years since the reboot with Fast & Furious. That film represented the return of Vin Diesel, settling into his sweet spot in a career that literally consisted of one other hit with him as the star, ever. (That would be The Pacifier. Including his turns as the voice of Groot in the Guardians franchise is absurd.) But more so, it took the sense of the international and the multiethnic that had developed in the sequel and the threequel and embraced it fully. It was a reboot and a de-boot. Perhaps most importantly, it mirrored the massive expansion of international box office. That film doubled the best of the first 3 films overseas. Then #5 doubled that. #6 saw a 25% bump. And then Furious 7 doubled that high for the series.
Short of Lucasfilm or Marvel, this once modest franchise stands as the model for much of the industry’s franchise ambitions.
For The Fate of the Furious, Universal added more muscle. Why-would-you-want-to-be-called-Dwayne-when-you-are-The-Rock Johnson is now a regular. Statham and Kurt Ruseell are now regulars too. “The Family” is stabilized with Tyrese, Ludicris, Nathalie Emmanuel (who only works in massive franchises… this and “Game of Thrones” and The Maze Runner), Michelle Rodriguez and Vin. So add Charlize Theron, because… why not?
So what do you do with all this extremely familiar firepower?
Add F. Gary Gray off of his triumph with Straight Outta Compton. After all, here is a guy who knows how to do action with more of a character base than a CG base. Set It Off, The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen. He’s never made a movie where effects ate the movie.
The first sequence is a good idea. Dom and Letty in Cuba. Raw. Cool old cars. Okay. Bet then, the sequence starts with the camera practically licking the lovely buttocks of first-time “actress” Lisandra Delgado, who may never act again, but will be invited to every party in L.A. for the next couple years, ride on a private jet included. I don’t recall any race-starting hottie being objectified in this way in the series before.
Stuff happens… and then there is a sequence in New York that doesn’t just strain credulity, but muddles it, shreds it, chews it up, swallows out, and craps it out. Really, this is the filmic opposite of the chase in The French Connection. The intimacy, the intensity, the sense of reality… all non-issues in this sequence. Logic? Forget that stuffy old idea.
At the core of the stupidity of this sequence is how it is executed by The Villain. One computer technician doesn’t just take control of some unwitting hack-vulnerable elements to raise the stakes. This one computer technician singlehandedly takes control of an action sequence that would require some precision work by no fewer than a few dozen well-organized minds at the tip-top of their evil game. And no doubt, hundreds of people (if not more than 1000) were involved in making this sequence come to life for the film. But I didn’t need to see a warehouse with 200 computer consoles, making a NASA launch look minor, in order to suspend my disbelief in a big, fun, silly action movie. But one guy? No.
Did I mention that Charlize Theron, who has a remarkably high skill level in the land of fantasy and CG, looks like she is being held hostage by a big check and fear of turning 40 throughout the film as she reads the weak (as usual) screenplay with a subtext of knowing how bad it is? (This is one of Vin Diesel’s charms. He is 100% go no matter how bad the writing.)
Jason Statham is having fun and his Parkour-master stunt double is doing a lot of his work. Jason is there for the tough guy jokes. He has the one truly likable sequence in the film – not spoiling it for you – and sadly, they lay on that about two beats too long for it to be as memorable as it should have been.
The Rock is having fun chewing the hell out of the scenery in the way a guy who knows he may be the biggest movie star in the world throwing out another film that might do a billion dollars.
Somebody get Tyrese Gibson’s character some irony. He’s doing what’s written and doing it fine, but he really could use a character blender for at least two acts. The two black guys chasing the one black woman is stale as hell, even though Nathalie Emmanuel actually maintains dignity for her character and never looks less than supermodelesque. Ludacris remains unfazed, cashing those checks and being just find hanging out.
I feel pain for Michelle Rodriguez, who is an interesting actress and human who gets the bulk of the “oh my God… did they really think that they could get away with that without the audience cringing?” lines. But I bet she is at peace with it and would tell me to f*** off if I said this to her. Fair enough.
I won’t explain all the many ways this film commits movie suicide. There are moments that work, here and there. But the pressure to top the stunts from previous films have pushed this, the 8th film, very close to self-parody. There is a giant disconnect, by design, between The Villain, who flies around in a plane and turns up and escapes from certain tight spots like a magician, and what is actually happening in the physical world. The ambitions of the techno-angle feel a decade old. Mr. Gray, who can bring it, still has a bad tendency to shoot in close-up too much, killing a sense of space in the action (a function of his first really big action film or his desire as an intimate filmmaker to prioritize humans… either way a car wreck).
Thing is… not everyone will hate it. Some will be satisfied with actors they like, lots of gun fire and fast vehicles, and the big strokes of the “we are family” storyline.
I am avoiding spoilers here, but I will say that I chafed in this film… a lot… by the idea that many, many dead people -good or bad – are of less value than one person who someone loves deeply. This is a constant part of this story. And it can’t be hidden behind, “Hey man… action movies.” I love many big, stupid, murderous action films. Give me the original Total Recall any day… human life is meaningless in that film. But that is the point. You are rooting for the hero and his survival, as in many action films. Nor is there the “we’re making a point of making the hero choose between his lover and 200 people on a boat” idea of The Dark Knight. The Fate of The Furious endlessly argues, without much thought, that endangering scores of thousands or more is less important than some relationships. The whole film is too silly for this to be hateful… but it poked at me for the entire running time.
We’ll see whether there is any audience consternation about the push to the ungrounded action. (Note: the fastest submarine ever recorded went 40 mph with miles to get to speed.) People love the familiar. This screenplay tugs and rubs through much of the franchise history to keep things faux fresh.
But it is hard to believe that something this important to Universal and on turf this well-trod by 7 previous movies led to something that really feels outside of the franchise. If there was an ice cream flavor that actually numbed your tastebuds rather than activate them, this would be the movie embodiment. Tofu with nothing to leech flavor from but the bowl. A manila envelope. Fate of the Flavorless.