FILM REVIEW – THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS. With Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron. Written by Chris Morgan. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language. 136 minutes.
They probably should have called it a day last time around, when the clumsy, jerry-rigged “Furious 7” went out on a semi-incoherent, affectingly melancholic note after trying to cobble a movie together from footage co-star Paul Walker filmed before his tragic death under circumstances the picture did not exactly make it easy to forget.
It was a heartfelt, albeit kinda lousy capper to a franchise that had gotten awfully lucky in the third installment with the arrivals of director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan–who took a bargain basement “Point Break” knock-off and spun it out for the next four films into a sprawling, insanely crowded, time-jumping action melodrama modeled on Hong Kong’s euphorically pulpy Golden Harvest films of the late 1980s. I’ll maintain that “Fast Five” –the series’ zippy zenith that snuck up on everyone back in 2011–is still the best John Woo movie John Woo never made.
Alas, director Lin left to go make “Star Trek” flicks a couple sequels ago. And while “Friday” and “Straight Outta Compton” helmer F. Gary Gray doesn’t do a half-bad job here, he also can’t conjure Lin’s ardent, goofball sincerity. You’re always aware THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS is a mercenary product that has no real reason for being except to make more money and more “Furious” movies, collecting characters and co-stars like a lint-roller while putting them into increasingly absurd and strangely weightless vehicular cataclysms.
This time, Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto–the family values-minded patriarch of our expansive, outlaw clan–is blackmailed into becoming a villain by the fearsome, anarchist hacker Cipher, an aptly named, shockingly boring white chick with dreads played by the insanely overqualified Charlize Theron. If the idea of Furiosa taking on the Furious is enticing to you, forget about it. This most intensely physical of actresses gets stuck behind a keyboard for the entire picture, barking orders and typing adamantly. How does anyone watch “Fury Road” and then not let her drive?
Dom turns heel and absconds with a super-scary electro-magnetic pulse device, leaving Kurt Russell’s smooth-talking CIA fixer to get the band back together and try to take him down. I so appreciate the way Russell approaches this performance, as if tickled pink by the absurdity of the exposition his character exists only to deliver. He demands that Jason Statham’s bad guy from the previous picture become part of the crew, and our gang doesn’t take long warming up to the dude who cold-bloodedly murdered their beloved little Korean buddy last movie, which is kinda weird.
“It’s shit but I didn’t-not enjoy it,” a colleague said to me about this film the other night, which is perhaps the best way to explain its bloated, Roger Moore-era 007 charms. Every time I was exasperated by “The Fate of the Furious” and about to give up on it, something odd and wonderful happened -–whether that be the splendid sight of Dwayne Johnson coaching his kid daughter’s soccer team, or Jason Statham cementing the series’ John Woo bona fides by re-enacting everybody’s favorite scene from “Hard Boiled.” Helen Mirren has a cameo so delightful I’m still smirking just thinking about it, and ditto for the sight of Tyrese attempting to drive an orange Lamborghini while spinning out across the frozen Russian tundra.
It does have the lugubrious, nothing-matters quality of those eighties Bond films, though. So for all the wit of the remote-controlled “zombie cars” sequence that takes Manhattan but looks as if it were filmed anywhere else, there’s still some business with a submarine that goes on for so long you’ll laugh remembering they said they were only going a mile, and then try to do the math in your head. Gray also succumbs to some big tonal miscalculations. A series regular is callously executed in a scene that throws off the goofball charm, a moment far too unpleasant for a picture this silly.
But Johnson, perhaps trying to make up for what amounted to merely a glorified cameo in “Furious 7” works overtime here, selling the hell out of his terribly hokey one-liners with such gusto it almost feels like he’s kidding but not quite and that’s what makes him The Rock. Scott Eastwood is a lot of fun as a mealy-mouthed government toady, so between this picture and “Snowden” I’m amused that the kid is carving out a career playing the kind of uptight pencil-pushers his dad used to punch out at the end of every one of his 80s movies.
As for Diesel, it is an act of enormous bravery for a man of his age and thickening build to wear white jeans in a major motion picture. Bless him for that, at least.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.