Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fate of the Furious

Alternate Title:  As The Rock Turns
One sentence synopsis:  Following a shocking betrayal from within, the Toretto crew must team up with old friends and adversaries to stop an international cyber-terrorist from seizing control of a doomsday weapon.

Things Havoc liked:  Let us now consider a work of high art...

The Fast and Furious franchise is one of the strangest things in film, an action movie series that somehow re-invented itself halfway through and became awesome on its fifth installment. How it did this is a complete mystery to me, partly because this is something that is simply never done, and partly because I took one look at the original Fast and the Furious and noped out right then and there. It took the dregs of 2015's indie dreck to drag me, kicking and screaming, into Fast & Furious 7, where I discovered to my amazement that the series had metamorphed into an action-soap opera involving wonderful self-aware humor, and some of the most ludicrous action setpieces I've seen since the heyday of the 80s. The writing was terrible, the actors sub-par, the plot ludicrous, the movie patently stupid. I kind of loved it. And now here we are, two years later, with another sequel, the eighth in the franchise, and one which has, at time of writing, scored the biggest opening weekend in the history of cinema (a record that is broken every six months or so, but still). Not bad for a movie series where two of the lead characters can't act and the third one is dead.

Too soon?

The Fate of the Furious is a movie directly taken from the vein of the previous films (I assume. Remember, I haven't seen any but 1 and 7). Dominic (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon in Cuba, visiting old friends, when trouble arrives in the form of Charlize Theron's Cypher, a super-hacker/Bond villain with ties to Dom's past (after eight movies, are there people still in existence who do not have ties to Dom's past?) out to do nefarious things for the sake of being nefarious. This is the sort of villain character that we have seen time and again in bad action movie after bad action movie, but this is Charlize Theron, a woman who embodies campy insanity, as a glance at the Snow White and the Huntsman movies will tell you, and she makes it work by vamping it up with icy-blonde dreadlocks and a murderous stare. She joins a cast that by now has passed unmanagably large and entered ludicrous territory (zing!), including The Rock, Kurt Russell, and F&F7's main villain (now converted into a protagonist, like every Fast and Furious villain), Jason Statham. Each and every one of these men are veterans of myriad bad action movies, and know just what they are doing here, from The Rock's larger-than-life personality (an early scene where he coaches a girls' soccer team includes a hilarious bit I would not dream of spoiling), to Kurt Russel's cock-eyed, self-assured arrogance (something he does oh-so-well), to Jason Statham's virtuosity when playing an abrasive asshole (something he is so much better at than playing a leading nice guy). These characters join the "crew", now comprising half-a-dozen members in their own right, even without the late Paul Walker, including Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson (I love these two men so much), Nathalie Emmanuel (who played a hacker character in the seventh movie that I assumed was disposable, forgetting that this series never discards anyone), Michelle Rodriguez, Elsa Pataky, and... you know what if I keep going, we're gonna be here all day, so let's just leave it at "also everyone else in the universe". Some of these people are good actors, some are not, but every one of them inhabits a lived-in role designed just for them, one that fits their strengths and er... non-strengths... just right, with the result that even the bad performances are charming in their own way. This isn't a movie you go to see in order to watch great thespians bare their souls. It's a movie you go to see to watch shit explode and one-liners said.

So who is the ringmaster of this absurd collection of action movie tropes and variable-quality acting? None other than F. Gary Gray, who we last saw two years ago directing the incomparable musical biopic Straight Outta Compton. One forgets, given the critical acclaim that movie produced, that Gray got his start directing stupid, stupid action movies like The Negotiator, The Italian Job (the 2003 version), and Law Abiding Citizen. While I would not recommend you all run out to find those movies (especially not the last one), they are in the vein of this sort of willfully absurd action extravaganza, and fortunately, Gray, as well as long time series screenwriter Chris Morgan (whose other work we shall not speak of here), seem to have found their senses of humor this time to go along with the ridiculous action. One of the secrets of this series' success is just how little it cares about how dumb everything is, and while it's hardly the first action series to give in to the stupidity and just run with everything, Gray succeeds where others fail by playing up the melodrama of everything to truly hilarious levels. Characters cannot simply discuss their feelings, they must weep and wail and gnash their teeth and cast about for scenery to chew upon, so overwrought are they by the soap opera-style drama and relationship complexities that overcome them minute by minute. With a lesser cast, this sort of thing would be insufferable, but Gray trusts his cast to go for it, relying on the good actors (or at least the good bad actors) to carry the bad ones through the material, and the stunts and action to take care of the rest.

Oh did I mention there was action in this movie? Because there is. And it's awesome. Granted, I don't know that anything will top the sheer lunacy that was the climax to the last movie (recall that that one ended with an akimbo lug-wrench fight between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham on top of a collapsing building), but I'll be damned if they don't try. Listing everything insane that happens in this movie would take a hundred years, but standout sequences include one where a computer hacker seizes control of thousands of self-driving cars for a chase through New York City, one that quickly comes to echo the zombie hordes from World War Z more than your traditional car chase. An extended, Mad-Max-style car chase sequence on a frozen estuary livens things up with the addition of a nuclear submarine to the mix, while Jason Statham, in the company of several cameos that made us all howl with laughter, gets to have a brutal hand to hand fight with innumerable military goons while holding a baby in a bassinet. I won't say this is the weirdest fight I've seen Statham engage in (the aforementioned lugwrench fight comes to mind, as does the occasion in The Expendables 2 when he fought off a platoon of soldiers with an incense censer), but it's one of the funniest, as Statham mugs for the baby (and the camera) during the entire engagement, which had me, at least, in stitches.

Things Havoc disliked: I love a good, stupid action movie as much as anyone, believe me, but all joking aside, I don't mistake it for a work of high cinematic achievement. Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez simply cannot act, not like this (in Rodriguez' case, not ever), and I'd be lying if I said it didn't get tiresome watching them try. And the film, in making them share the screen with actors like Charlize Theron, does not do them any favors, nor even when it pairs them with people like Statham and The Rock, who whatever their acting limits, are extremely good at overacting in action movies like these, and thus can't help but show up those in the cast who do not have such skills. This was a problem in the seventh movie as well, but it's a bigger one here, as the soap opera turns of the plot (has Dom Toretto turned on his "family"?!?!) forces everyone to start overacting in a hyper-melodramatic manner, resulting in about seventy billion repetitions of the already pre-established fact that the crew here are a family, and that family is very important when family bonds are strained by familial family obligations of family family family family family. Given that Guardians of the Galaxy managed to set up a believable, fun, surrogate family dynamic without ever once using the word 'family', it's a little much to sit through scene after scene after scene in which characters narrate their own familial relationships to one another in repetitive detail, especially when the actors doing so have no idea how to deliver a goddamn line.

That said, there's nothing wrong with the concept of course, in fact more movies could stand to have a showcase of characters of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and accents like this, family or not. But if you're going to have a cast this size, then the question of what the hell to do with everyone is going to rear its head, and while the film manages to give most of the cast something to do, there's an unavoidable sense that some people are just here because they're expected to be here. With so much attention on Dom's dilemma and his cat-and-mouse games with Theron's evil villainess, the rest of his crew gets short shrift. Gibson and Ludacris are mostly there to score points off one another and flirt with Emmanuel, Rodriguez has nothing whatsoever to do besides look constipated and growl the word family every five minutes, and a new character, a stick-in-the-mud G-man played by Suicide Squad's Scott Eastwood (because an association with fucking Suicide Squad was what this series needed), is pretty much introduced becasue we need someone to play the handsome generic white dude in the absence of Paul Walker, and I guess he'll do. Even The Rock, whom I adore to death, has very little material in this film, other than a handful of fun scenes playing off his rivalry with Statham. I understand that there's a limited number of movie minutes to go around, but a film that fails to use The Rock properly is a movie that is struggling to invent a reason why everyone is there. I grant that plot is a tertiary concern at best in a movie like this, but there has to be something in it for everyone, or the film will begin to resemble nothing but franchise maintenance, along the lines of the third films from the X-Men and Iron Man series.

Final thoughts:   Granted, I wouldn't quite go so far to directly compare Fate of the Furious with those films, but the parallel did assert itself as I was watching, and thus for all its action setpieces and soap opera plotting, I have to confess that Fast & Furious 8 is not as good a film as its direct predecessor was. By no means is it a bad film, but it feels... limited, in a way that the previous one did not. It's possible that's just a reversion to the mean, or a factor of the previous film being an auspicious combination of low expectations and bad competition, but I honestly think that the series, given its disregard for taste and its enormous cast of quality bad actors, is capable of better than this.

That said, for all my reservations, I do recommend Fate of the Furious, perhaps not as strongly as its predecessor, but strongly nonetheless, as only in this series have I found such a wonderful disregard of logic crossed with an embracing of fun, despite all the efforts to ape it by lesser studios and series. For my part, I shall file this one away as a lesser-but-still-fun episode of my favorite action-soap opera, and wait for better things. Of course, given the fact that Fate of the Furious has just finished making roughly all of the money in existence, I expect that the aforementioned cast will soon have an opportunity to try the whole exercise again. And when they do, I will be there to see it.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  The Princess Diaries 3:  Attack of the Kaiju

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