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A few decades back, an advert for a big-budget, superhero adaptation claimed moviegoers would “believe a man could fly.” Except, of course, he wasn’t a man. He was a Superman and the movie, Superman: The Movie officially kickstarted big-screen, comic-book superheroes (Superman and Batman, the only superheroes who really counted back then). Soon enough audiences took the whole flying thing for granted, wanted more and eventually, got more. It took almost four decades, though, before the whole superhero thing took over pop culture completely. Even a one-time illegal street racing flick, a Point Break knock-off no less, eventually mutated into the equivalent of superheroes with muscle cars. Forget believing a man could fly. Now moviegoers will not only believe a muscle car can jump over a submarine, they’ll willing applaud the utter and total ridiculousness of it all. And “ridiculous” is exactly the right word where the multi-billion dollar Fast & Furious series is concerned: It’s turned into a gravity- and logic-defying live-action cartoon, pure escapist, sensory-overloading fun.

With the late Paul Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner, permanently absent with leave (living a life of comfortable retirement), the full weight of the Fast & Furious series falls on Vin Diesel and Dwayne “Don’t Call Me the Rock” Johnson’s shoulders. Their characters, Dom Toretto, an illegal street racer, part-time thief, and improbable government super-spy, and Luke Hobbs, a government super-agent, started off on opposite sides of the law. Over three entries, though, they set aside their differences and became allies and to borrow Dom’s favorite word, “family.” No surprise then that after an extended, Havana, Cuba-set prologue that puts Dom back in the driver’s seat of a street car, winning a street race, but trashing his car in the precess, Dom answers Luke’s call for help on a super-secret mission in Berlin without a second thought. Except Dom’s already compromised, agreeing to work for Cipher (Charlize Theron), a cyber-terrorist with a multi-million dollar bank account and a murky agenda straight out of Live Free or Die Hard. Cipher has something on Dom and it begins and ends with … “family.”

Dom betrays his non-biological family, including his wife, Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), to save someone or something as important or more important than his family, turning him against Letty, Luke, and their crew, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). Dom also escapes with the object of Luke’s mission, an EMP device, part of Cipher’s master plan to bend the world to her whims (or something). Dom’s betrayal leads to Luke’s capture and imprisonment for conducting an unsanctioned mission on foreign soil. It’s a semi-clever way to bring in the newest, least likely member of the Fast & Furious “family,” Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), Furious 7’s seemingly unkillable villain. But that was then – getting misguided revenge for his brother, Owen (Luke Evans), entry 6’s villain – and this is now. And now means that Hobbs and Shaw’s hatred for each other gets put aside for the mission to take down Cipher and Dom. Han, the Team Furious member who lost his life to Deckard at the end of chapter 6?  He doesn’t even get a passing mention, let alone a shoutout.

The Fate of the Furious doesn’t just go comic-book epic with its stunt-centered set pieces, it also borrows the ret-con idea from comic books, turning Cipher, until now never mentioned by a single character in any previous entry, into the super villain responsible for turning Owen into a cold-blooded criminal and killer and Deckard into the misguided brother out for revenge after Dom and Hobbs take out Owen. It’s the same plot device the last James Bond flick, Spectre, used to turn Blofeld into the unseen puppet master who orchestrated all of Bond’s setbacks and defeats across  the last four entries in the long-running series. For better or for worse, it’s clear Cipher has been set up to be more than a one-movie villain. She might just be the Magneto to Dom and Hobbs’ Scott Summers and Wolverine (or vice versa). That doesn’t explain why first-time series director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, The Italian Job, Friday) and returning screenwriter Chris Morgan keep Cipher stuck on a high-tech private jet, barking commands to faceless underlings on and off screen. If it feels like a waste of both the character and Charlize Theron, it’s probably because it is (a waste, that is).

Keeping Dom apart from his team, interacting mostly with Cipher and almost no one else, might serve a story function, but without Walker’s Brian – the heart to Dom’s soul in the series – The Fate of the Furious really starts to drag around the midpoint of its two hours and sixteen minute running time. You can only have characters talk about “family” so many times in a movie before you start to feel resentful and want to shout at the screen, “Just get on with it already.” And with a third act that takes place on a frozen over Russian submarine base somehow overrun by separatists, the fast cars vs. submarine scenario starts to feel like Bond again, but not the “good” Bond. CGI has come a long way – thank the digital gods for technological advances – since Die Another Day featured Bond para-surfing across an under-rendered tsunami, but that doesn’t make the biggest set piece feel empty and soulless in a way that the previous seven entries mostly avoided.

It doesn’t help that growing the core cast from movie to movie means that series stalwarts like Roman and Tej get the short end of the proverbial stick, trading their trademark barbs during high-tension moments to diminishing returns (blame the screenwriter here, not the actors doing their level best with substandard material). The Fate of the Furious relegates Letty to “worried girlfriend or wife” mode while the only other significant female character, Ramsey, slides into hacker-as-info-giver mode, leaving Theron’s underwritten Cipher to pick up the slack on the other side of the gender divide. With Dom back on Team Dom/Hobbs, maybe Fast 9 (not the real title) can refocus the series on giving the core characters not just more screen time, but more meaningful screen time. That or – as rumors have suggested – the Fast & Furious team can take their highly improbable skill set into outer space.

Category: Film, reviews

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