Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: The Fate of the Furious (2017)

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language

Score: 3 out of 5

It's kind of amazing what a difference one actor can make to a movie series. Paul Walker's importance to the Fast and the Furious franchise became clearer than ever after he suddenly and tragically died in (ironically enough) a car wreck, with the seventh film, Furious 7 (which was in production at the time of his accident), ending on an extended and well-deserved tribute to the man. And his passing is sorely felt in The Fate of the Furious, the eighth installment in a blockbuster franchise that few expected to last half that long. The absence of Brian O'Conner (and, by extension, his wife Mia) from this film shows just what a singular unit the "family" from the last four films was, namely by taking out one of its central members and irrevocably altering the dynamic between the rest -- and the changes are not for the better. The plot is perfunctory, a nonsense mishmash of plot twists, backstabs, and sudden reveals that mainly serves as an excuse to visit exotic locations in exotic cars. Character motivations shift at the drop of a hat, and bigger ideas are never followed through on. Regardless, the cast is still as great as ever, and the action remains an absolute feast for the eyes in terms of explosive spectacle. Looking back on the franchise as a whole in ten years, I'm probably gonna remember this film as the point where things started to go wrong before it inevitably jumped the shark, but taken on its own, it's still a solid blockbuster action flick.

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), after getting married at the end of the last film, are honeymooning in newly-opened-to-Yanquis Havana, Cuba, where Dom can't help but get into another street race as he admires all the well-preserved classic '50s cars. There, he meets a mysterious woman, known only as Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into turning against the rest of his family/crew (now a team of mercenaries for hire by US intelligence), stealing a valuable EMP device they were sent to retrieve and delivering it to her. Now, the rest of the crew, led by Letty and DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), must figure out why Dom turned on them while stopping Cipher, a master hacker and cybercriminal, from launching a terrorist plot.

I'll start with the villain, Cipher. That's honestly an appropriate name for her, since "tech genius supervillain who looks like Charlize Theron" is about all the characterization she gets. And to her credit, Theron was fine in this film. She plays a great ice queen, and she is in that mode throughout, making for a welcome presence on screen in every scene she's in. However, she barely gets any motivation for her terrorist plot to hijack a nuclear weapon beyond "keeping the world in check" or something along those lines. Underneath all the flash of her airplane lair and her henchmen, she's basically a generic supervillain of the sort that James Bond has fought in many of his lesser films, admittedly done well on the surface but with little of substance beneath that. The reveal that she had been behind many of the events of several of the prior films, this film's attempt to turn her into a greater-scope villain for the series, also rang hollow, for the same reason that a similar twist in Spectre fell flat: it felt shoehorned in out of nowhere to build the new villain up as a threat, without considering the plot tangles it creates.

Many of the other characters don't get off much better. Cipher forces Dom to work for him by kidnapping his old flame from the fifth film, who he apparently had a baby with. Unfortunately, I was scratching my head as to just who the hell that actually was. Elena, the ex-girlfriend of Dom, can only barely be considered part of the "family" -- she never appeared or was even mentioned in the next two films, Dom had clearly left her and settled down with Letty after the events of Fast Five, and the reveal of her and Dom's love child came out of nowhere just like the reveal of Cipher's involvement in the events of past films. Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw, the villain of Furious 7, also returns, and he at least gets a less paper-thin arc, working with the family to bring down Cipher because he blames her for ruining his brother Owen's life. His teeth-clenched alliance with the family and the US government could've actually worked. Having a former enemy of the family reluctantly working alongside them, and possibly waiting for a chance to betray them, could've created a lot of dramatic tension had the film properly exploited it, but unfortunately, his transition from an untrustworthy anti-hero into a genuine hero is given about as much thought as most of the other plot turns in this film.

The parts of the crew that aren't Dom or Deckard get off better by virtue of, ironically, being more two-dimensional and having less time devoted to their stories. Sure, these actors are basically doing this in their sleep, but even so, they get to have fun playing action heroes and not worry about having to carry dramatic story beats that the film's writing isn't up to selling. Dwayne Johnson is undoubtedly the MVP, a walking charisma machine who is basically the closest thing the modern day has to the muscle-bound action movie icons of the '80s and '90s, combining the badass fighting chops he learned in the WWE ring (I think I saw him lay out at least one mook with a Rock Bottom) with an excellent sense of humor. Scott Eastwood is the new blood in the cast as "Little Nobody", a rookie agent working with Kurt Russell's G-man Mr. Nobody who slowly learns the tricks of the trade that they didn't teach him in the academy. Like his father Clint, Scott's got a bright future ahead of him as an action hero if this is any indication.

And while the connective tissue holding the action scenes together may have withered considerably since the last film, the action itself remains spectacular. Action junkies and gearheads are going to get the most out of this film's diverse array of fistfights, shootouts, and most importantly, car chases galore, as each new action scene attempts to top the last in every manner that the film's outrageous budget will allow. Jason Statham makes up for his poorly-written character with a great one-man showcase of his action chops aboard Cipher's plane, with an added element in the shootout that I can't bring myself to spoil, and the climax with the submarine made me wonder if I should be shaking my head in disbelief or cheering in awestruck excitement (I ultimately went with the latter). Any pretense of realism has been dropped entirely, with the action scenes basically turning this film into a larger-than-life Marvel superhero movie without the comic book characters. Director F. Gary Gray makes great use of old-school stuntwork and practical effects, and while his cinematography is just a little too shaky and kinetic for my liking, he proves himself a solid replacement behind the camera for James Wan from the seventh film and Justin Lin before that.

The Bottom Line

A weaker plot and characters prevent it from being as transcendently awesome as the last few films, but the bread-and-butter of why people see these movies, the fast cars wreaking havoc in exotic locations, came through as loud and clear as ever. I dunno if we really need any more movies in the franchise after this, but if we're gonna get 'em, and they can at least keep up this film's standard, I'll take 'em.

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