‘The Fate of the Furious’ has the Franchise Running on Fumes

The Fate of the Furious poster

So here we are again in the land of fast cars and unabashedly mindless entertainment. We all know what to expect when we walk into a “Fast & Furious” movie, so we should only complain so much, right? “The Fate of the Furious” is the eighth film in this now 16-year-old franchise, and the filmmakers bring most of our favorites back including Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel, and “Furious 7” co-stars Kurt Russell and Jason Statham are back to do more damage as well. And yes, there are fast cars aplenty on display here, and you can gleefully expect Gibson to pick the sexiest one even if it is not well-equipped for where he is taking it.

Still, I came out of “The Fate of the Furious” feeling surprisingly underwhelmed. What we have here is not a bad movie, but one which barely rises to the level of being okay. I didn’t get the same rush I typically get as this family of characters drive through one city after another at breakneck speeds while giving every insurance company a lot of grief. Part of me wants to blame the fact that the franchise’s last entry, “Furious 7,” was one of the best and most emotionally of the bunch, but perhaps these films are now drifting on fumes as it feels like we have finally gone too many laps around the same track.

Anyway, Dominic Toretto and Letty Ortiz are on their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba when Dom comes across the alluring Cipher (Charlize Theron), a criminal mastermind and cyberterrorist who makes him an offer he can’t refuse, and it involves betraying those closest to him. Why does Dom go out of his way to betray family? You have to watch the movie to find out, but it involves him stealing an EMP device and some nuclear codes which Cipher wants for her own nefarious purposes.

Having been betrayed by Dom, Luke Hobbs somehow ends up in prison despite all his years of service to law enforcement, and he ends up in a cell right across from his nemesis, Deckard Shaw. After an over the top prison fight which has them both escaping, they run into Frank Petty who informs him and the team they will be working together to bring Dom to justice. Yes, there is only so much plot to be found in “The Fate of the Furious,” but there is still much to take in here. In retrospect, maybe there’s too much.

When it comes to these “Fast & Furious” movies, you are obligated to suspend disbelief, and they usually move at a pace which keeps you from thinking too much about what’s going on. But with this one clocking in at over two hours, my brain was thinking a lot more about the crazy scenarios than usual to where I was taken out of the movie more than twice. For starters, having Statham become a good guy seems far-fetched considering how evil and dangerous he was in “Furious 7.” Granted, his scenes opposite Johnson make for the best moments in this entry as they bait and insult each other as they constantly threaten to beat one another to a bloody pulp. Still, the change in loyalties can only go so far even in this series.

Also, the majority of the car chases on display feel more like special effects than the real deal. There are some cool moments like when Cipher manages to hack into dozens of cars to where they rain on everything and everybody. Still, it felt more like I was watching a video game instead of a movie as the filmmakers stretch credibility beyond its limits from start to finish. In the end, they can only get away with so much.

Directing “The Fate of the Furious” is F. Gary Gray who gave us “Friday,” “The Negotiator,” “Set It Off” and one of the best biopics in recent memory, “Straight Outta Compton.” There’s only so much he can bring to the table as this franchise thrives on familiarity and cars to an infinite degree, but he lets certain scenes drag out when the pedal should be put to the metal. And when that submarine jumps out from under the ice, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps this franchise had finally jumped the shark as it tried to outdo itself in terms of stunts. For all I know, the next installment will have this family teaming up with aliens from Mars as they battle another nemesis who’s even worse than the previous one.

This sequel does have the invigorating appearance of Charlize Theron who portrays perhaps the coldest and cruelest villain Dom and company have ever faced. Theron gives us a deliciously evil antagonist in Cipher, and her strength comes from never having to overplay the character. She keeps a cool demeanor throughout as she makes us see Cipher is always one step ahead of her opponents without even having to show us why. Those beautiful eyes reveal to us a corrupted soul who has those in her command under in her complete control. Theron has always been great at playing a badass whether it’s in a movie like this, “Mad Max: Fury Road” or the upcoming “Atomic Blonde,” and she is a memorable addition to this franchise.

Aside from that, a lot of what I saw in “The Fate of the Furious” felt kind of worn out compared to what came before. Diesel delivers his usual stoic performance as Dom, but his veiled threats to Cipher could have felt more threatening. Even the banter between Gibson and Bridges, who can always be counted on to provide comic relief, feels tired as they constantly yell at one another as if they were in the latest Michael Bay movie. As for bad characters switching alliances, it’s a little difficult to believe Deckard Shaw would help Dom so easily after he killed off one of Dom’s best friends. People like these don’t just forgive each other easily.

Regardless, there will be a ninth “Fast & Furious” movie in the near future as this franchise shows no signs of slowing down. I just hope the filmmakers bring a fresh energy to the next installment as “The Fate of the Furious” lacks it more than I could have anticipated. Instead of trying to outdo the stunts which came before, maybe everyone can bring renewed focus to the characters and give us real stunts instead of ones generated by CGI. This isn’t a terrible movie, but it could have and should have been much better than it was.

For the record, there is no post-credits sequence, so feel free to take care of your urine ache sooner rather than later.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Furious 7

Furious 7 movie poster

Some franchises really overstay their welcome, but that’s never been the case with “The Fast and The Furious.” While it looked like this series was running on fumes by the time “Tokyo Drift” came around, the main characters from the original came back for the fourth entry which re-energized everything to a major extent. Now we arrive at “Furious 7” where the action remains top notch even as the filmmakers defy logic more than ever before, but there’s also a lot of emotion and poignancy as we are reminded of what brings us back to these films more than anything else: the characters. Deep down, we care a lot about Dom Toretto and his family and of what happens to them.

After vanquishing Owen Shaw in “Fast & Furious 6,” Toretto and company now have a new nemesis to deal with in Owen’s older brother, Deckard Shaw. Played with villainous relish by Jason Statham, Deckard vows vengeance against Dom and his crew for what they did to his brother, and he starts off by eliminating Han Seoul-oh (Sung Kang) and then obliterating the Toretto family home. This disrupts their lives as Brian O’Connor (the late Paul Walker) tries to settle down into a regular suburban life with Mia (Jordana Brewster), bur the death of one of their gang forces them to take matters into their own hands.

There’s actually something quite nice about calling “Furious 7” a sequel instead of a prequel or intra-sequel. The three previous entries took place before “Tokyo Drift,” but now we have a “Fast & Furious” film which actually takes place after “Tokyo Drift.” As a result, the fates of these characters are now up in the air more than ever, and we can’t be sure of what will happen next.

The presence of the late Paul Walker casts a heavy shadow over “Furious 7” as there is no way we can watch this film without being reminded of the fiery car crash which claimed his and Roger Rodas’ life in November 2013. It’s nice to see Walker play his star-making role one last time, and his entrance into it is very inspired. Walker died halfway through filming this movie, so the filmmakers had to use stunt doubles and CGI effects to fill in the missing blanks. Honestly, the results look seamless, and I couldn’t tell how exactly they pulled it off. Just like Brandon Lee in “The Crow,” Walker gets one last ride which is more than worth the trip.

It’s also fun to see Vin Diesel back in action even as his dialogue becomes rather cringe-inducing at times. There’s certainly no replacing him as Dom Toretto, and he has a number of nice moments with Michelle Rodriguez whose character of Letty is still struggling to remember who she once was. It’s also nice to see Jordana Brewster and Dwayne Johnson back as well, and this is even though we don’t see enough of them this time around. As for Johnson, he looks more massive than ever and has a nice little Incredible Hulk moment which will have the audiences cheering. And yes, he sure can wield an enormous machine gun just like the one Jesse Ventura wielded in “Predator.”

Among the new additions to the franchise in “Furious 7” include Kurt Russell, and it’s always great to see him in anything. Russell plays Frank Petty, a.k.a. Mr. Nobody, who heads an ultra-secret covert ops group which comes to help Dom and his crew take down Deckard. After all the law-breaking Toretto and his gang did, it only makes sense they team up with a group which bends the law as well. The “Escape from New York” star remains as cool as ever, and if they do decide to make another film in this franchise, I hope they bring him back for more.

Djimon Honsou also shows up as a bad guy named Mose Jakande, a character whose last name reminded my friend Courtney of some lyrics from the song “Iko Iko.” The “Gladiator” actor lends another strong villainous presence to a movie which already has one with Statham. Ronda Rousey, one of the few bright spots in “The Expendables 3,” makes a cameo as a character who tries to beat the crap out of Letty. And of course, you can always count on Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges (a.k.a. Ludacris) to keep chewing each other out with infinite glee as Roman and Tej.

“Furious 7” employs a number of stunts which defy the laws of gravity and logic among other things, but it’s our love of the characters which keep us from being bothered about that too much. This is especially the case when Dom and Brian drive an incredibly fast car from one high-rise building to another in Abu Dhabi. This moment almost tops Tom Cruise climbing up another building in the same country in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”

Also, as I’m sure you’ve seen in the trailer, the gang parachutes out of a plane in their cars, and they manage to land on the ground below with relative ease (their shock absorbers may need some work though). Lord knows how you can steer a car while it is skydiving to the ground, but these drivers are all about the impossible, and they make us want to buy into their craziness.

I do have to give Diesel some extra credit here. His character of Dom Toretto ends up surviving so many car crashes and head-on collisions in this sequel, not to mention driving out of a parking garage as it collapses around him, to where I’m not sure how many other actors could pull this off and make you believe they would come out with only a few cuts and scratches (at least, until the movie’s last half). Only an actor like Diesel can sell this kind of survival to an audience these days, so it should be no surprise we are willing to accept all he endures here no matter how improbable it all gets.

With Justin Lin out of the director’s chair for this installment, James Wan of “Saw” and “Insidious” fame steps behind the camera to direct this, his first mega-budget blockbuster. This is kind of a hard franchise to bring anything new to at this point, but Wan does bring an unexpected amount of emotion to the material. Granted, a lot of this emotion comes from Walker’s tragic demise, but even Wan understands the need for the audience to be emotionally invested in these characters for a movie like this to work at all. Jumping from small budget films to a studio tent pole franchise is no easy feat, but Wan makes “Furious 7” work as a go for broke action extravaganza which never ever lets up. He is also backed up by another kick ass music score by Brian Tyler who returns to the franchise after sitting out “Fast & Furious 6.”

I have to believe there’s an eighth “Fast & Furious” movie coming our way, but if this is to be the last one, then the franchise is certainly going out on as high a note as any franchise could ever hope to. Still, I’ve got to believe there’s still some life left in this series as I am very much impressed at how long it has lasted.

At the very least, Walker gets a better and more heartfelt sendoff here than he did in “Brick Mansions.” Even the toughest guy in the audience is likely to shed a few tears at the dedication made to the actor’s memory at the movie’s conclusion. He’ll tell you he didn’t get choked up, but you will be able to tell if he’s lying to you.

* * * ½ out of * * * *