The Fate of the Furious
If you had told me back in 2001 that a pulpy little "Point Break" remake called "The Fast and the Furious" would go on to spawn seven sequels and counting over the course of 16 years, I would've laughed in your face. If you had continued to tell me how the franchise would actually peak in quality during the fifth film, I'd be rolling on the floor and gasping for breath.
And yet, here we are. The "Fast and Furious" films have become a blockbuster franchise following the adventures of a team of street racers turned international criminals turned superhuman covert government operatives. "Fast Five" breathed new life into this franchise as one of the best action films this side of the 21st century, but the films to follow have been sucking through straws that are getting thinner and thinner with each subsequent entry.
We've arrived now at "The Fate of the Furious," the franchise's eighth entry, featuring the most awkward numerically-playful title since "2 Fast 2 Furious." (Get it? F8 sounds out to "Fate!") Screenwriter Chris Morgan, who has penned every one of these films since 2006's underappreciated "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," finally succumbs to the pitfalls of the world he's constructed. Morgan can essentially be deemed the master of the "Fast and Furious" cinematic universe, treating the franchise in a fashion akin to what Marvel Studios is doing with its superhero properties. By bringing together the major characters of the first four films in "Fast Five," Morgan built the franchise to what it is today: A gravity-defying, logic-challenging ode to ridiculous action set pieces, spectacular stunt work, searing masculinity and a central heart that wraps around a singular theme of "family."
In "Fate of the Furious," the face of the franchise -- Vin Diesel's muscle-headed family man, Dominic Toretto -- turns his back on that family, and Morgan turns his back on much of what has made the latter half of this franchise so great. Gone are the scenes of Dom telling his fellow team members, "You're up!" as they venture off to complete one step of an outlandishly intricate plan. Early in the film, Dom is approached by the world's most dangerous cyberterrorist, Cipher (Charlize Theron, donning a bleach-blonde dreadlocked hairdo that would feel more appropriate on the head of someone selling bongs on the Venice Beach boardwalk). She hands him an iPhone with content so damning that it forces Dom to "turn his back on family" and "go rogue." This leaves the franchise's new golden boy, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, to take over as the team's fearless leader. (It also opens the doors for the last film's villain, Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw, to join the team as one of the good guys).
There are miles and miles of convolution in the film's central plot not worth diving into here, but I will say that I hope this is the worst thing to happen this year involving Russia and nuclear weaponry. There's just too much here, and Morgan's persistent fan service and blatant callbacks to past films are frequently annoying. The core of this franchise, however, is the unapologetic silliness of its action set pieces, and "The Fate of the Furious" is not dissimilar in its preposterous philosophy. It is, unfortunately, drastically different in execution.
This crime falls on the franchise's new director, F. Gary Gray, who has as much action filmmaking sensibility as one would expect from the director of films like "Straight Outta Compton" and "Friday" (not to mention "The Italian Job" and "Law Abiding Citizen," which are both disastrously terrible action movies). The film's biggest mistake is hiring Gray as the man calling the shots, because the shots he calls are tedious, timid, and thin. Many of these problems existed in the previous entry, "Furious 7," where horror director James Wan took over for director Justin Lin who, like Morgan, joined the franchise at "Tokyo Drift" and continued all the way to "Furious 6."
Gray's direction only magnifies the factors that have vanished since Lin's departure from the franchise. The action set pieces here are some of the franchise's worst. Every shot feels too lazy, or too close, or too far away. There is too much ignorance in the storyboard and editorial work, transforming the action into an incoherent mess. There is too much CGI, which erases the magic that is often conjured by featuring practical action solutions instead. There is too much slow-motion, complete with a godawful "BA-DOOOOO" sound effect that just screams, "Look at me! Look at me! Look at this thing I just blew up!"
The difference is just far too grand not to notice -- a non-action filmmaker behind the wheel of one of the biggest action franchises on the planet. There are points where I'm not even sure Gray knew how to get the motor running. The finale of "Fast Five" is an excellent example to which to draw comparison. The film's third act heist, which found the team dragging a giant bank safe through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, remains one of the franchise's most ridiculously conceived plot points. And yet, Justin Lin's filmmaking makes it all seem surprisingly plausible, as does the way he captures an airliner being taken down during the finale of "Furious 6."
Gray can't even handle a simple street race or a run-of-the-mill prison brawl. The film's coolest sequence -- where Cipher hacks into hundreds of cars and sets these driverless vehicles loose on the streets of New York -- should have had me squealing like a five-year-old child. But it's filmed with such an uninteresting eye that the pleasures of the plot specifics became moot. The only thing on my mind was how "The Fate of the Furious," too, feels like a driverless vehicle. If a film is directly referencing John Woo's "Hard Boiled" and I'm not having a good time watching it, something is seriously wrong.