Twenty-two years and nine sequels in, the “Fast and Furious” franchise is finding it hard to keep the thrill alive.
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By Wesley Morris
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So much has gone over the top in these “Fast and Furious” movies — stunt work and demolition, obviously; but also family trees, racing, race, plots, pates, biceps, upper backs — that it wasn’t until I saw what Jason Momoa was up to in this new installment, “Fast X,” that I realized how much the acting had stayed under the table. He swoops in to play a flamboyant terrorist named Dante Reyes. And it’s pretty clear, from the pitiful quips he’s been given and the light-loafer treatment he’s going for, that the mustache Momoa’s twirling isn’t his. It’s Rip Taylor’s.
For half a century, Taylor ran all over American TV in a hail of confetti that he threw for himself. He didn’t act. He made appearances. That’s how Momoa operates here, showing up wherever the movie needs him (on patio furniture, at the top of the Aldeadávila Dam) in lavender and snakeskin and billowing everything, horny to blow something up. These movies have been out of good ideas since “Furious 7” eight years ago, mired in government-flavored tug-of-wars over hacking, surveillance and tech. And Momoa’s here to zhuzh things up. So along with Taylor’s mustache, Momoa twirls himself. It’s like watching an overcup oak go trick-or-treating as a Christmas tree.
And yet, even though he destroys the Spanish Steps of Rome with alacrity and purrs lines like, “I know what you’re thinking. And yes: the carpet matches the drapes,” it’s not zhuzh-y enough. Momoa is giving the Joker. But Cesar Romero’s. Of course, he’s the only person here committed to clear and present lunacy, going for post-macho chill, refashioning the quote marks around him into neck pillows.
Five movies and a dozen years ago, Dom (Vin Diesel) and the gang trashed favelas in Rio de Janeiro and killed Dante’s drug-lord father (along with scores of innocent Brazilians, but we’re not going there today). Now, with the series at the bottom of its barrel, Dante wants revenge. This means sending a giant bomb barreling toward the Vatican. He doesn’t quite pull that off, but his wish comes true to make wanted terrorists of Dom and the rest of the gang, creating a rift between them and the feds they covertly work for and spoiling the driving lessons Dom had been giving to his 8-year-old son, Brian (Leo Abelo Perry).
There are about five intersected plot lines, credited to Justin Lin and Dan Mazeau (the director Louis Leterrier replaces Lin as mayhem manager). Dom on the run; Dom’s brother, Jakob (John Cena), babysitting Brian (they’re on the run, too); some of Dom’s crew — Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Han (Sung Kang) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) — all but backpacking through Europe; Dom’s wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), arrested and locked up alongside the crew’s cyberterrorist nemesis, Cipher (Charlize Theron); and the two feds, Aimes (Alan Ritchson) and Tess (Brie Larson), at odds with each other over whether to aid or apprehend the “F&F” gang. And just about every strand stems from Dante’s pique and gets left as a cliffhanger that won’t be resolved until years from now in, what, “Fast X+1”?
The best I can say about all of this is that it didn’t bore me. But this is a series that, by the time its fourth and fifth installments arrived, had merged the original movie’s casually erotic, multiethnic, omni-racial car culture with the “can’t top that” set pieces of Hollywood summer movies. It wasn’t that that fusion was never boring. It had the thrill of newness. How many times have I laughed, in awe, at what this series could do with all kinds of vehicles and the people behind them. It insisted that a universe of nonwhite folks could meet the priorities of blockbuster filmmaking and still rake up money around the globe. And it was exciting to see who they could enfold into that agenda (Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell).
We’re talking about 22 years and nine sequels, though. Stacking the rotation with two former professional wrestlers, four Oscar winners (Rita Moreno gets jammed in here as Dom’s grandmother) plus Aquaman no longer feels like radical popular-culture inclusion. It feels both defensive and greedy: Can the Avengers top that? From an industrial standpoint, it does expose how much less gonzo our movies are now. What other franchise would’ve had the nerve to imagine Statham as Mirren’s son? To put Diesel in Moreno’s arms, Larson’s good graces and Theron’s cross hairs?
There’s a charitable, cash-free reason nobody wants these things to end. Despite Paul Walker’s having been dead for a decade, in these movies, his character, Brian O’Conner, is still alive, still married to Dom’s sister, still a dad, still living on a beach somewhere. The opening minutes of “Fast X” reimagine the death of Dante’s daddy in “Fast 5” and therefore grant the film an excuse to reanimate Walker. It just strains credulity that Brian would be sitting idle now while his homies face extinction. But that’s an implication of what these movies are asking us to believe, that his wife, Mia (Jordana Brewster), is more down for the defense of their family than he is. So letting this series go means letting Walker go, too. But that sentimentality leaves these movies with nowhere to go but up its own annals. (Well, there is Antarctica, the funniest of the datelines here.)
Instead, we get the wrong kind of chaos. You can see it in the incoherence of the driving — and there’s not enough of that, either. Which means wasting the series’s lead actor and flame-keeper. These movies used to know what they had in Vin Diesel. Put him behind the wheel of anything, and he’s a star. The cameras in “Fast X” are too busy to truly take in all the furrowing, the glints, the scowls. He’s not much of a husband, lover, father or mastermind in these movies, but give his foot a gas pedal and suddenly the man can act. His best moments in “Fast X” involve that stuff at the Vatican. He seems to mean it. Dom’s enormous crucifix isn’t an accessory. It’s a promise. But later, when he’s pulling two charred helicopter husks behind him, Diesel’s lack of concern concerned me. The thrill is gone.
It’s not there in the sequence in which that ball-bomb eats a chunk of Rome or any of the many, many shootouts and fistfights. Not even in the brawl Rodriguez and Theron endure that should have killed both of their characters. Visually, it’s as messy as a lot of the sequences in “Fast X.” It’s hard to care about a fight you can’t follow or be bothered to suspend disbelief for. That’s the true death knell for this series: rationalism, nit-picking, disillusionment. (Why can’t Brian come out and play?)
The series doesn’t need Momoa’s vamping. The camp was always coming from inside the garage, the way these movies operated in defiance of physics, chronology, narrative logic and DNA. Their subject was criminals conflicted about going legit. Now they’re practically a government agency, out protecting the planet — and they’re so far through the moral looking glass that everybody looks too comfortable. There’s a reason the movies’ insistence on family starts to feel laughable. It makes us feel like we’re at Olive Garden. Their dumbness made them important. Now, self-importance has made them dumb. Characters are now explaining these movies to each other — and where great, big, bronzed Aimes is concerned, mansplaining them. They’re saying stuff like, “It’s like a cult with cars,” “The fallout will be existential” and “This family has gotten their hands dirty to keep ours clean.”
These movies used to know what about them was ridiculous. They’d give that to us until our hearts broke the speed limit. But I’ve already seen Diesel drive at a 90-degree angle before. The old bravado currently reeks of formula. The nerve is shot. There was a time when this series would have had Dante send a pair of balls hurtling toward the Vatican.
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 21 minutes. In theaters.
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