Lukewarm Takes: The Fate of the Furious (2017)
There was a time, a mere eighteen years ago, when Vin Diesel was the broodingly charismatic, scene-stealing, fan-favorite star of The Fast & The Furious franchise. The late Paul Walker, god bless him, was likable. He was obscenely good-looking in a way that may have played a role in his popularity as a film actor. He had presence and was beloved by the moviegoing public and the Fast & The Furious familia in particular but he was not a terribly charismatic figure nor was he a particularly good actor. So it was not exactly difficult for Diesel to blow his co-star offscreen as the raspy, tough-guy villain of 2001’s The Fast and the Furious.
Paul Walker is of course no longer with us to make Diesel seem more interesting by comparison, having famously perished in a car accident. The little franchise that could keeps getting bigger with each successive entry. Part of that reckless yet insanely lucrative expansion involves continually adding larger-than-life actors and pop culture icons to the franchise.
2003’s 2 Fast, 2 Furious brought in the wonderful Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as well as model turned actor and singer and, if you’re being very generous, rapper Tyrese Gibson, who was cast against type as the franchise’s comic relief despite not being even a little bit funny.
Things really began to change with 2011’s Fast Five, which re-conceived the franchise as essentially Mission Impossible with cars and brought in the mega-watt star power of Dwayne Johnson just as he was becoming a dominant force in American pop culture, a true-multi-media icon bigger than the professional wrestling world that catapulted him to prominence.
When Johnson entered the picture the Fast and the Furious movies essentially became his franchise. The jockeying for power and position and dominance onscreen in these preposterous gearhead macho fantasies echoes the clashing egos of the muscle-bound movie stars behind the scenes.
The famously likable and chill Johnson took to Instagram to criticize an unnamed costar everyone assumed was Diesel for being “chicken shit” and a “candy ass” as part of a very public feud that split the populace into #TeamVin (Vin Diesel and his mother) and #TeamDwayne (everyone else in the world).
Furious 7 added Jason Statham, who debuted in the end credits of Fast & Furious 6, murdering beloved fan favorite Han ( #JusticeforHan) and all-time cool dude Kurt Russell as shadowy operative Mr. Nobody.
Somewhere along the line Vin Diesel went from being the most charismatic actor in the cast to being, if not the least charismatic performer in the series, then one of the series’ least interesting actors. He’s lucky that the much more useless Gibson is around or he might really be moved to stay awake at night wondering what, if anything, he really brings to the franchise at this point beyond a nostalgic connection to its past.
Diesel’s Corona-loving, perpetually undershirt-clad alpha male Dom Toretto goes “bad” in The Fate of the Furious, the eighth motion picture in the franchise that will not die, or even rest briefly, but don’t worry, at no point does it ever actually seem like he’s done a heel turn and gone against the family.
Maybe that’s not entirely true. For a fraction of a second I genuinely thought that maybe Dom had broke bad. I’m not gonna lie: it fucking rattled me. It shook me to my core. There’s almost nothing left to believe in. I’ve lost faith in institutions, in people, in ideas, in life itself but the one thing that I’ve never lost faith in is fictional character Dom Toretto’s belief that when it comes right down to it, nothing in the world is more important than family. And living by your own moral code. And making cars go fast. And winning races and earning respect. And drinking Coronas. And wearing only undershirts. And barbecues. And keeping the sacred memory of Paul Walker’s Brian alive despite the character still being alive within the continuity of the series, with the caveat that he’s out of the picture and trying to provide a normal life for his children.
So you can imagine how intense and terrifying it was for me when Cipher, an evil computer hacker played by a dreadlocked Charlize Theron, tracks down Dom in Cuba and, in the sinister monotone she employs throughout the film, tells him that he’s going to go against the family, break his moral code and do things he never imagined possible.
Dom go against the family? Mamma Mia! Is nothing sacred? If we can’t believe in Dom Toretto’s commitment to family then what can we believe in? Other than QAnon of course?
Man, if QAnon is ever proven false, it will rock my world even harder than the prospect of Dom going against the family! But that’s neither here nor there because it turns out that Dom didn’t really go against the family. I mean, he did, in the sense that he seemingly turns on the team when he steals a MacGuffin for Cipher but he hasn’t actually gone bad because Cipher kidnapped the baby he doesn’t know he has and is forcing him to do evil bad guy shit or she will straight up murder his baby and his baby mama too.
In The Fate of the Furious, Dom, the bad guy turned good guy seemingly turns bad guy again unexpectedly, does a “heel turn”, as it were, and professional wrestling legend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is all, “Where have I seen this before?”
With the Fast and the Furious films it’s all about family and, to a lesser extent, cars. But what if I were to tell you that there are actually three kinds of family? There’s biological family, but then there are crews and groups of friends whose bond is so tight and connection so profound that they’re a form of family as well. The final form of family is of course Juggalo family, which The Fate of the Furious does not address in the slightest.
Having the stakes be the life or death of an adorable baby and his mama is melodramatic on the level of John Woo or Douglas Sirk but journeyman director F. Gary Gray (Friday, the Negotiator, Straight Outta Compton) is no operatic hyper-stylist and the sequences pitting Cipher against Dom and then Dom against his beloved Family lurch and lumber where they should soar.
Dom hasn’t been a human being in quite some time. When Cipher turns him, it feels more like Lex Luthor brainwashing Superman into doing his bidding more than anything involving flesh and blood human beings. Diesel was once very compelling as Dom, particularly when he’d kick back, Corona in hand, the sunset casting moody shadows behind his well-muscled, undershirt-clad frame, and talk about the importance of family.
Diesel is dreary and one-note in Fate of the Furious, however, telegraphing that his character really doesn’t want to be doing the nefarious and villainous things he’s doing, but is nevertheless doing so to save the life of a son he didn’t even know he had by having by sporting the same intense frowny-face throughout the film.
Despite what Diesel might like to think, scowling does not constitute a performance. During the considerable portion of the film dedicated to Diesel’s enormous, Fast and the Furious-sized ego it forgets that it has a sense of humor about itself. It forgets to be goofy and fun and utterly, gleefully, intentionally ridiculous and over-the-top.
Then Diesel disappears from the screen and the movie remembers how to be, and have, fun again. Heck, there’s a fun set-piece late in the film where Statham’s Shaw fights off a plane full of killers while simultaneously protecting Dom’s baby, who is distracted from the bloodbath taking place all around him by headphones flooding his little baby brain with the syrupy, obnoxious sounds of Alvin & the Chipmunks that plays to Statham’s gift for combining action with deadpan physical comedy. But it does not reflect well upon Diesel that his character’s baby makes more of an impression with zero lines of dialogue than his onscreen papa does with more dramatic business than anyone else in the film.
It’s a shame Dom is such a drip because there’s a lot of fun to be had whenever Diesel is offscreen. As Hobbs & Shaw further proves, Statham and Diesel have explosive, wonderfully homoerotic chemistry; they’d give off Tango & Cash vibes even if The Fate of the Furious didn’t find Lt. Gabriel Cash himself, AKA the great Kurt Russell AKA Mr. Nobody, wasn’t the mysterious operative who put these two alpha males of the western world together in a state of jacked-up competition and conflict.
A prison riot set-piece where Hobbs and Shaw throw muscle-bound bruisers around like rag dolls and kick guards and fellow convicts alike with enough force to send them into the next area code illustrates the kind of trashy B-movie majesty the franchise is capable of at its macho, purposefully excessive best.
Theron doesn’t get to have much fun as the movie’s cartoonishly evil villain but the movie’s conception of what hackers and computers are capable of is so paranoid and all-consuming that it calls to mind 1990s cult classics like Hackers, The Lawnmower Man and The Net, all of which labored under the adorable delusion that computers, and a newfangled entity called the internet, could do anything and everything, up to and including going kablooie and turning everything all Y2K in a heartbeat.
In a memorable set-piece Cipher chooses the nuclear option and transforms a vast fleet of cars into a remote-control army of vehicle zombies that transform a city street into absolute chaos as they crash into each other and hurl themselves from the top floors of building, as if in a suicidal haze.
Then there’s the ridiculous vehicles and weapons at play. The Fast and the Furious was based very loosely on an article about real street racers that ran in Vibe. It had a very loose grounding in reality but by this point we’re dealing with a tank, a submarine and the nuclear football. If this franchise got any bigger or more outlandish the climax would find Dom and his family fighting bad guys in outer space on souped-up space fighter jets.
There are a lot of things I enjoyed about The Fate of the Furious but thanks largely to Diesel it’s frustratingly less than the sum of its parts. At worst, it is leaden and humorless, a joyless slog through mythology that gets bigger and more ridiculous with each unstoppable new entry yet that did not keep it from grossing well over a billion dollars at the world-wide box office.
Like the superhero movies they often resemble, it doesn’t really seem to matter whether the Fast & the Furious movies are any good or not; they’re so big, and so popular, and so ubiquitous that they’re going to keep coming whether we like them or not. And then at some point they’ll be rebooted and we’ll all complain that the new Brian and Dom can’t hold a candle to the acting legends who made these characters unlikely pop culture icons.
I much preferred Hobbs & Shaw to The Fate of the Furious but I will continue to see these dumb, sometimes awesome, sometimes tedious movies anyway because doing so is my sacred responsibility as an American and a consumer as well as someone who writes about pop culture for a living.
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