Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'The Fate of the Furious' review

At this point, you should know what you're getting with the Fast and Furious franchise. It's not like the producers and writers of this series are going to switch up the formula now. These movies thrive on big, dumb action, setpieces so ludicrous that you know they practically defy every law of physics, and an emphasis on family that comes off as bizarrely sentimental at best. But now, it's just a matter of how far this series can push it before people start to turn on the mayhem. Fast Five had its protagonists drive a giant safe through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Fast and Furious 6 had a car chase with a tank on a highway, as well as a sequence that featured what might possibly be the world's largest runway. And in addition to the tragic send-off for Paul Walker, Furious 7 took the action to a whole new level, dropping cars out of the sky, having them drive between skyscrapers, and bringing all-out mayhem to the streets of Los Angeles.

If you thought that was ridiculous, just wait until you see what the producers dreamed up for The Fate of the Furious. With the 8th installment in the highly successful series (the film broke the global opening weekend record), director F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Chris Morgan push things to the absolute limit, taking the action to a point of absurdity that could only be topped by a trip to outer space. A chase with a nuclear submarine, remote-controlled cars in the streets of New York City, dazzling feats of superhuman strength- it's all here in this big-budget demolition derby. Dwayne Johnson literally plays the Incredible Hulk, Jason Statham shoots people while carrying a baby, and Vin Diesel occasionally screams to indicate that this is a serious scene. Without a doubt in my mind, this is the most ridiculous film ever made. But at what point does the absurdity become too much? With The Fate of the Furious, we may have finally reached a breaking point. All of the action is no longer as fun as it is mind-numbing, soulless carnage devoid of the spirit that made the other Fast films so tremendous. It has moments of spectacular blockbuster madness, but Fate is a significant step down for the franchise.

When we last saw Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), he was driving off into the sunset and bidding farewell to Brian (the late Paul Walker), who abandoned their fast and furious life to raise his child with Mia (Jordana Brewster, also absent from this installment). The Fate of the Furious picks up in Cuba, as Dom is now on his honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who was rescued from memory loss in the sixth chapter of the seemingly endless series. Dom's honeymoon is interrupted by Cipher (Charlize Theron), a cyberterrorist who has some pretty scary dirt on the Toretto family leader. It turns out that Cipher has been the one pulling the strings the whole time, and she forces Dom to do the impossible and turn against his family. Dom's betrayal puts Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) behind bars, forcing him to go face-to-face with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the vengeful criminal mastermind that the crew imprisoned last time around.

This leaves Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) to ponder just how Dom could betray their bond like that. Enter Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood). The two mystery men tell the team that Cipher is hoping to start a nuclear war, employing a variety of terrorists to carry out her bidding. She's already used Dom to steal a weapon of mass destruction with the capability of shutting down an electrical grid, and she's making a push to have the world at her fingertips. To stop Cipher, the team will have to bring in some old friends and some old enemies and use their love of vehicular mayhem to bring the terrorist down. As the team moves from Cuba to New York to Russia, they'll leave plenty of destruction in their path, hoping to save their family and their world at the same time.

None of the Fast and Furious movies have a particularly strong plot, but the eighth installment is borderline inept from a narrative perspective. The producers and writers have previously stated that they design these films by creating the setpieces first and writing the story later, and for the first time, that truly shows. The Fate of the Furious features a whole lot of sitting around, as characters kill time, make quips, and spout off expository dialogue about nuclear weapons and family and the like. All of the Fast movies have featured scenes like this, but the pacing has always been better than it is here. It's just messy and fairly tedious, and it's sad considering that the two most influential creative leaders have both done great work before. Director F. Gary Gray, who perfected the rap biopic in 2015 with Straight Outta Compton, has no discernible directorial stamp here, forced to imitate what Justin Lin did so well with the fifth and sixth installments. He isn't helped by Chris Morgan's weak screenplay (which is terrible compared to his prior scripts), but it's sad to see Gray's impressive touch feel so diluted.

When the big action moments do come around, they alternate between being absurd fun and just plain absurd. The Fast and Furious movies have always walked a very fine line between entertaining schlock and outlandish nonsense, and for the first time in the franchise's recent history, the series is finally leaning more towards the latter. Gone is the visceral practicality of the car chases from the fifth and sixth installments- The Fate of the Furious jumps the shark with a cacophonous spectacle of outrageously overblown action. Every character is a superhuman, every setpiece feels like it has been ripped straight out of a James Bond movie, and every cool moment is punctuated by a ridiculous note that just makes you groan. After a while, I started to get numb to the whole ordeal, which is something that had never happened in previous Furious movies. There's only so much you can take before it just gets to be too much.

In fact, I would almost go as far as to say that it feels like the producers of this franchise are attempting to take the series in an explicitly comedic direction. Fate inspires more laughs than thrills, and it's so hilariously over-the-top at times that you just want it to stop. But oddly enough, the generally ludicrous nature of the film is accompanied by a sinister side, where the emotional stakes of the series are taken to a new level with darkly violent subplot. Cipher's dirt on Dom is some pretty nasty stuff, and it goes into some directions that don't necessarily work with the idea of a car chase on the Russian tundra. It almost seems like Gray and Morgan had two plans for the eighth film- go super dark or ramp up the insanity. Instead of picking one and sticking with a cohesive tone that kept the audience involved, the result is a movie that does both and ends up feeling scatter-brained.

But even as one of the most tonally inconsistent installments in the history of the series, The Fate of the Furious manages to barely skirt by as passable by relying on the franchise's greatest strength- the characters. While Charlize Theron's Cipher isn't all that memorable of a villain and Scott Eastwood's Little Nobody is relatively forgettable, I love the way that the Furious series continues to bring in a rotating crew of characters into the proverbial family. Dwayne Johnson plays a truly ridiculous version of Luke Hobbs in this film, but he's still one of the most charismatic stars on the planet. Jason Statham matches him well, and if rumors are to be believed, their characters will be in for one hell of a spin-off. Kurt Russell is stuck spouting off exposition as Mr. Nobody, and yet somehow, he still manages to be incredibly entertaining. Vin Diesel is definitely the weak link (the dude literally has two kinds of acting that he can do), but this franchise has never been populated by great thespians. In addition to all of this, we even get a few cameos that were simply delightful.

Fans of the Fast and Furious franchise are going to want to check this one out no matter what I say, but I almost feel like I'm writing this review in the naive hope that someone involved with this series reads it. Because even as a fan of the Fast franchise, Fate pushed it way too far. It's the first time that this adrenaline-fueled insanity has felt more like a chore than a delight, and that's something that I really don't want from a piece of pure popcorn entertainment. Diesel has repeatedly stated that this is the start of a new trilogy, and judging by the ridiculous box office receipts, Universal doesn't really need to change much. But if they want to make sure that audiences stay happy and keep the Furious franchise from slipping into Transformers-level irrelevance, they'll need to make sure that chapters 9 and 10 are a vast improvement over this disappointing eighth installment.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.3/10)

Image Credits: IMDB/Universal

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