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My Thoughts On Fast X
As you have probably noticed over the course of the last twenty years, the inexplicably resilient Fast and the Furious film franchise has expanded—evolved is perhaps not quite the right word in this case—from an agreeably grubby mid-budget exploitation item about a young cop falling in with a group of illegal street racers that he has been sent to infiltrate and bust to increasingly elaborate globe-trotting adventures in which those racers, augmented by an ever-expanding cast list, are recruited to save the world from various insidious threats that can somehow only be stopped by driving really fast and crashing into things. In the last installment, this was taken to its absurd extreme when, in its most infamous sequence, two of the characters—it hardly matters who, I suppose—found themselves in space driving around in a rocket car for reasons that currently elude me. Sure, the visual was amusing, at least for a moment, and it certainly made for nifty memes, which I suppose was mostly the point, but it kind of left the franchise in a bit of a creative bind—once you’ve taken your massive global audience into space, where can you possibly go from there that could top that? Once upon a time, the producers of the James Bond franchise found themselves in a similar bind following the ridiculous Moonraker and decided that instead of trying to take things even further out, they would pull back on the reins considerably and make the next film, For Your Eyes Only, an infinitely more low-key affair that harkened back to the early entries in the series and kept the gimmicks and gadgets to a relative medium.
Suffice it to say, Fast X does not exactly take that approach. Although it dials the ludicrousness back a touch (everyone stays more or less earthbound this time around), this is yet another wildly overstuffed extravaganza where practically every scene involves grinding gears, burning rubber and drivers violations both the rules of the road and the laws of physics at every hairpin turn and the ones that don’t make up for it with fistfights, gunshots, explosions or inexplicable cameo performances. The result is slightly better than the last couple of installments—mostly due to the impact of one exceedingly strange performance in the middle of all the chaos—but even fans far more devoted to the franchise as a whole than I am would have to admit that a certain amount of repetition has set in by this point. Frankly, the one major element thrown into the mix that hasn’t be utilized before is the decision to not give the story a proper ending but to leave things on a cliffhanger that will be wrapped up with what is rumored to be two concluding films and even that seems less like a legitimate dramatic choice and more like an effort to one-up the likes of Infinity War.
The film reportedly cost north of $300 million to produce, was shot on locations around the world and includes a cast that puts the Cannonball Run saga to shame, yet it somehow manages to have based upon a screenplay that could be adequately summarized on the back of a postcard sent from one of those locales with more than enough space left over for the address. After the ritual backyard barbecue featuring the extended family of series center Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel)—this one presided over by no less than a previously unmentioned grandmother played by no less of an icon than Rita Moreno herself—he settles back into domestic life with wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their son, Little Brian (Leo Abelo Perry), who is about eight years old but already spinning doughnuts in the parking lot with the old man. Meanwhile, the team’s B-squad—Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tep (Ludacris), Han (Sung Kang) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel)—are off to Rome on a mission to intercept some valuable stolen materials at the behest of the all-powerful Agency.
Suffice it to say, it is a ruse that results in a massive bomb rolling down the streets and heading straight for the Vatican until Dom and Letty—who have managed to fly all the way from California in the knick of time—to save the day, though Letty is arrested and the others are forced to go on the lam after being accused of causing all the havoc and destruction. As it turns out, all of this has been the doing of Dante Reyes (Jason Momoa), who has a long-standing bone to pick with Dom dating back to one of the earlier installments (suffice it to say, it turns out to be all about family) and has chosen now to make his move for revenge. Of course, merely killing Dom would be too easy (and vastly shorten the running time) and Dante is more interested in making him suffer by being forced to see terrible things happen to those who have helped him in the past, which is just about everyone at this point. From here, the film bounces from locale to locale as the various characters get into wild scrapes, reunite with other familiar faces and occasionally sate their need for speed.
As it goes from one exotic locale to the next and brings the large array of familiar faces on to do their bits, Fast X at times feels more like a checklist than a narrative. Besides all the people who have been mentioned so far, there are also appearances from such past performers as Charlize Theron as international cyber-criminal Cipher, Jason Statham as former baddie Deckard Shaw, Helen Mirren as Shaw’s equally larcenous mother, Jordan’s Brewster and John Cena as Dom’s siblings, Mia and Jakob and Scott Eastwood as a Fed who proves to be fairly useless. New to the series this time around are Brie Larson as mysterious government agent Tess, Alan Ritchson as a more by-the-book agent and Daniela Melchior as Isabel, a street racer who proves to have her own connection with the sprawling narrative that—surprise—is once again all about family. Throw in a bunch of surprise cameo appearances—none of which I will reveal, except to note that at least two of them are not exactly that surprising—and you have a film that at times begins to resemble It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, albeit without the dramatic plausibility.
And yet, while hundreds of millions of dollars have been deployed to pay for the cast, the locations and the massive stunt sequences, the results are, for the most part, surprisingly unmemorable. Granted, one does not go to a film like this for scintillating drama but it seems almost perverse to include no less than four Oscar-winning actresses in the cast and then fail to give any of them even a single line of dialogue that sounds like something that an actual human being might say aloud. To be fair, this goes for pretty much the rest of the cast as well, who seem to treat the whole production as an elaborate paid vacation that requires them to speak a few lines of boilerplate dialogue and then get out of the way to allow the stunt teams and CGI technicians to do their stuff. The screenplay by Dan Mazdas and Justin Lin is little more than a laundry line of car chases connected by the bare minimum of narrative required to link them together. There are also a few moments where the script tries to suggest to us that it is in on the joke of its own ludicrousness—such as having the perpetually underused Emmanuel character spout out some key information and then exclaim that she can do things now—in moments of self-awareness that are just a little too on-the-nose for their own good.
That would be acceptable, I suppose, if those big action beats had lived up to the level of craziness established by the series in such memorable moments as the chase involving two cars dragging a vault through the streets of Rio in Fast Five (a sequence that actually proves to be a key, albeit retconned, element in this film as well) or the car jumping between two high-rise buildings in Furious 7. However, while certainly noisy and elaborate enough, the action scenes here mostly lack that final burst of inspiration that might have made them work. Take the sequence involving the giant bomb rolling through the streets of Rome while the gang try to figure out a way of stopping it before it levels the entire city. There are a couple of admittedly arresting shots early on of the bomb rolling along like the boulder at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark but it goes on for so long without doing anything particularly eye-catching or interesting that it soon wears out its welcome. Like the rest of the action set-pieces on display, it is ultimately too silly to be taken a serious bit of white-knuckle thrills and spills and also not quite goofy enough to hit the ludicrous heights seen in the best installments of the series. (If you are going to stage a cartoonish action sequence involving ace drivers trying to stop a bomb from taking out the Vatican from behind the wheels of their cars, why not go all in and have Vin Diesel save the day from behind the wheel of a hot-wired Popemobile?)
The closest thing that Fast X gets to a spark of life comes from the admittedly singular performance from Jason Momoa as this edition’s big bad guy, Dante Reyes. On paper, neither the character nor his motivations are particularly interesting (I personally would have given the film a rave if it had turned out that his desire for revenge was borne out of Dom and his crew stealing a truckload of DVD players belonging to him 20 years earlier) and his diabolical details of his plot—which tends to rely on a ludicrous sting of events and brushes with death that inevitably lead to his foes winding up right where he wants them at just the right time—would lead to Wile E. Coyote himself suggesting that he simplify things. However, instead of going the way of the previous films have done with their villains by playing the part in a relatively straightforward and largely forgettable manner, Momoa has elected to go down the same path that Johnny Depp did in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies by playing him in such a wildly flamboyant manner that you cannot quite believe what you are seeing. Imagine the Joker as played by Avery Schreiber and you may have some idea of the effect of Momoa’s work here. I’m still not entirely certain how successful his performance ultimately is—and your mileage may vary wildly in this regard—but it certainly brings a much-needed shot of energy to the proceedings.
Perhaps the reason why Momoa’s turn stands out so well is that he shows him to be apparently the only person involved with Fast X who is actually trying to do something—pretty much everyone else on both sides of the camera go through their paces with the kind of torpor that suggests that they know that the film is almost certain to make at least a billion dollars, whether they make an effort or not. (Leterrier once again demonstrates that his facility for staging slick, stylish and memorable action sequences only holds up when he is working with Luc Besson—here, he is little more than a better-funded H.B. Halicki.) As I said earlier, this one is a slight improvement over its immediate predecessors—at the very least, it isn’t quite as contemptuous of its audience as they were—but doesn’t hold a candle to the fifth, sixth and seventh installments of the franchise, films in which the combination of cinematic eye candy and general goofiness was at its most refined. Most of you reading this will no doubt go to see it, I’m sure, and a number of you may even like it much more than I did. That said, it is probably the most forgettable use of $340,000,000 that you will ever see and if you remember any of it, outside of Momoa, when the next one comes around, it would be the closest that this film comes to a genuine surprise.