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‘Fate’ Furiously Races Franchise Towards Finale

Fate Of The Furious

Directed by F. Gary Gray

Written by Chris Morgan

Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, and Charlize Theron

136 Minutes

Sixteen years ago I was a junior in high school. I was a ravenous film reviewer even back then and became enamored with The Fast and The Furious. I never got into the fad of modifying cars to race down a mile stretch of road, but the original movie was an underrated gem that, even then, I thought would never make it this far and with a total of 8 installments. Following the disastrous box office for Tokyo Drift, most fans felt the series would take the straight-to-home-video route. Luckily, thanks in part in budding screenwriter Chris Morgan, the franchise found its footing and has now accumulated a gross of over $4 billion worldwide. That includes the $1.5 billion haul that Furious 7 generated, even in the wake of Paul Walker’s passing. Universal announced that three sequels had been greenlit to tidy up the franchise and close out the story properly – and fans asked, story? What story?

Well, that’s what Fate of the Furious is for. Once again Morgan has penned another fantastic tale in this franchise that actually dials back the action, focusing instead more on the sense of honor and family that serves as the glue for Dom and his family, fueled by new revelations that stand to tear them asunder but serve to tie the long-gestating story together into focus as the Furious franchise speeds towards its grand finale.

First things first – let’s address the elephant in the room – the absence of Paul Walker. Now I may seem out of line or a tad cold – and that’s not my intention, given I bawled at the end of Furious 7 like a toddler watching Bambi – but his presence actually isn’t missed. In fact by the time you’ve rolled through the first thirty minutes of Fate, you’ll be too enamored with the plot unfolding on the screen to ask yourself when Brian O’Conner is going to stroll onto the scene. Screenwriter Chris Morgan, the writing wunderkind who’s charted the course for the Furious franchise for eight years now (and probably has the grand finale all mapped out by this point), doesn’t fully ignore the character. At the right moments our cast of characters do bring up if O’Conner’s specialties are needed for their latest plight. Ultimately, Furious 7 closed that chapter on Walker’s character. He’s left his adventures behind to focus on his family. I’m sure we’ll see Mia again somewhere in the last two chapters of the franchise (given that she’s Toretto’s sister, I think an appearance would be necessary at some point in time), but the 2015 film was a first-rate conclusion in the genesis of Brian O’Conner – anything further would tarnish the closed chapter.

Now, if there was one complaint that I had with Furious 7 in hindsight, it was the balls-to-the-wall set pieces that felt more at home in any other franchise. (You know, like Jason Bourne or James Bond – or The Expendables.) After the moneymaker that 2013’s Furious 6 was at the box office, I suppose veering into a straight-up action franchise was inevitable. But that wasn’t what this cast of character was about, working for the government to stymie the world’s worst miscreants. Thankfully, with Justin Lin a bit busy with the long-gestating adaptation of DC’s Aquaman, the producers went in a whole different direction to bring things back to Earth. F. Gary Gray, who actually helmed Diesel in the vastly underrated A Man Apart and Statham & Theron the ultra-cool The Italian Job (a remake actually done right), takes over the reins for this sequel and actually dials the action back from a 10 to a 7, placing the focus more on character as well as vehicular mayhem. While the team is still working alongside Mister Nobody, the focus isn’t on chasing down the villains with guns blazing amid voluminous set pieces. Gone are the all-too-clearly-shot green-screen spectacles of Furious 7. (That moment Brian is running off the big rig as it slides off a cliff? Didn’t think anyone forgot at all.) Rather, Gray strives for something fluffier. What made the Furious franchise develop the most was its core of fast cars, hot girls, and mouthy characters – and that’s what we get with Fate of the Furious.

The focus isn’t trying to connect the story with extravagant set pieces, each one trying to outdo the other to keep audiences wrangled into the evolving narrative. Fate retains its heart squared away with family, the one characteristic that Chris Morgan has been able to hone in with perfection across the last four installments. The team – consisting of Dom, Letty, Hobbs, Roman, Tej, Ramsey, and Deckard (more later) – has already built up the rapport amongst themselves and earned our full attention. While the laughs were far and few between the last two installments, instead interjected amidst some of the more serious moments as a breather in both Fast 6 and Furious 7, the wisecracks show a stronger show of force in Fate. The barbs between Hobbs and Deckard are less of the physical nature and more on the degrading nature, blows going to and fro, mouths chattering a mile a minute with insults to riotous they seem fitting for Johnson’s Rock persona to utter them all with gritted teeth. Roman serves more of the comedic foil as usual, with Tyrese earning the most laughs for his interactions with Tej (a bond between brothers stronger than ever) and the rest of the team. After the dour tone of Furious 7, a step back into lively and light fare was what was necessary.

Gray also works better when shooting on location as opposed to parking his cast and crew in rigs on a studio backlot in California. Anyone can do that nowadays to create the most explosive of action-packed sequences. But then audiences can feel cheated if the CG isn’t up to snuff, cheapening the thrills and yanking crowds out of interest in the film. Instead, Gray and Morgan go back to what this series was initially all about – pandemonium on the streets. Sure, there’s CGI mayhem infused into the scenery still but nothing as jarring as Furious 7, which felt so fabricated at times I was a tad too awash with disbelief. Fate, rather than shooting at one or two locations, actually tripled down with on-location shooting this time. Shooting occurred in Germany, Iceland, New York City (refreshing to see the Big Apple for real instead of a fake location utilized), Cleveland, and Cuba. You read that right – Cuba. Fate of the Furious marks the first time an American film has filmed on location in the famed country, in an elongated epilogue that places audiences in a drag through a “Cuban mile.” Though some of the chase sequences feature a bevy of CG-placed vehicles, really to save on the budget of the total amount of cars destroyed in the course of production, the stunt driving work is tight and frenetic, F. Gary Gray’s direction from The Italian Job strengthening the thrills as cars zoom around like a child with a wild imagination playing with Matchbox cars.

 I was quite astonished that, even after six films at the helm, Chris Morgan seems to know exactly what he’s doing when he sits down to pen the next installment. Sure, the first movie was written by Gary Scott Thompson (hit television show Las Vegas) whilst 2 Fast 2 Furious was guided by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (Wanted and 3:10 To Yuma), but Chris Morgan has spent the last 11 years keeping the Furious franchise literally on track. With each passing installment, all leading up to the grand finale in just two more sequels, Morgan continually demonstrates that he has had a grand plan all along. We may ask ourselves why the plot of Furious 6 was necessary – so Letty survives the events of  Fast & Furious, forgets who she is, and shacks up with a British baddie. Slightly ridiculous but okay, sure, movie was still more fun than should have been. The silly MacGuffin, God’s Eye, from Furious 7 that had the team squaring off against an African warlord, as well as the brother of the previous villain, all while aided by a clandestine operative? Very much over the top but fine, still entertaining. All of the storylines dating back to 2009’s Fast & Furious have had a point with developing core characters, introducing new allies and death-dealing antagonists, and setting up the path ahead.

That’s because Chris Morgan knows exactly where all of the characters we’ve met – including Jason Statham’s Deckard, Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs, and even Elsa Pataky’s Elena – are going to intersect, and that begins with Charlize Theron’s Cipher. In any other actress’ hands I’ve no doubt the icy and menacing hacker/terrorist would have little impact, just another power-hungry baddie who would seem more cookie-cutter than prototypal. Hell, before even being introduced to Cipher, I couldn’t have connected the dots as how all the roads would converge to just one single track. At long last we have a foe that brings everything together, the nonsensical plotlines now making the most sense looking back. Theron, who’s on a career resurgence since her role of Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road just two short years ago, again brings her best to paint Cipher as a diabolical power-obsessed maniac, making Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn look more akin to Cartoon Network kid’s program without any flair or pomp. Theron makes a very better villain for a heroine, mincing every word as she eggs on Diesel’s Dom like a droll, enacting payback around the globe in her bid to fully control everything at her fingertips (and keyboard), her cold heart lacking concern for who eats a bullet along the way. Hell, she even makes the latest batch of Bond villains look like cheesy straight-to-DVD cannon fodder.

Of course, without the rest of our protagonists in the way Cipher, leading Dom with a one-inch leash fastened around his neck, would have no trouble in attaining her goal. Diesel actually hearkens back to the Dominic Toretto we were introduced to 16 (!) years ago, albeit trying to wrangle his own freedom along the way, though his every move is tracked via God’s Eye. Michelle Rodriguez, the better of her and Dom’s married motorists, tells her confidants that Dom’s being played, her plea being tossed aside too easily. The brotherly competition between Chris Bridges’ Tej (sorry – Ludacris) and Tyrese Gibson’s Roman shines the most, getting the biggest laughs with their rivalry as they still vie for Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey, with Tej/Ramsey handling the hacking aspects to one-up Cipher, whilst Roman tries to get her attention by belittling those around him with his dry wit. Joining them is Scott Eastwood’s Little Nobody, looking so much like his daddy Clint, peppering his role with the right amount of grit with his moral responsibility and code of conduct. Meanwhile Mister Nobody, Kurt Russell, nudges the team in the right direction at the right time in a meatier role than Furious 7, which was too brief an appearance (and yet, one of the casting coups I wanted more from at the end). And yes, the trailer ruins it – Jason Staham’s Deckard does join our merry men and women to spoil Cipher’s goal but, believe it or not, between he and Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs, serves as one of the most refreshing aspect of the film.

Listen, I feel like Jason Statham is severely overlooked throughout his career. Homefront? Safe? Even his work in all three Expendables movies has been outstanding, his knowledge of Wing Chun kung-fu and kickboxing making his hyper-kinetic fisticuffs land of more of an impact blow by blow. Though his machinations in Furious 7 were suspect (why did he want Toretto’s head on a platter anyway?), what has driven him in his past is finally unfurled in Fate and actually is fleshed out, finally offering audiences his backstory to explain his motivations. Statham shines, blending his impeccable sense of witticism to balance his hard-hitting fight-or-flight jaunts. Given that we’ve been teased for two movies now that both Deckard and Hobbs will duke it out, instead both men try to one-up their insults to each other, serving as some of the comedic highlights of the movie. Their incivility against one another, clearly aiming to crack each other, breaks up the machismo antics both men carve through the course of the movie.

Though the car chases are quite a sight to see (see – the zombie car sequence only teased in the film’s trailer), what has made the Furious movies become a fan favorite these days aren’t the explosions, the stunts – but the notion of heart and family. The comradery among brothers and sister, people of different backgrounds and cultures all brought together out of necessity and forming lasting bonds because of their situations. Some of our characters know each other for different reasons, but when all were united in Fast Five, it was because the situation was too serious and required the talents of many to thwart not just one villain, but a whole corrupt force. As each new installment has released in theaters, the bond with this makeshift family has only gotten stronger, led by Toretto’s belief in loyalty to family. Family, no matter color or creed, is blood to him, and everyone embraces the notion the longer they span the world together. Though the ideology of family plays a larger part in Fate than in past sequels, if not for relying on family then what do you have? Trusting others to help you when you’re in a pinch or need a helping hand, though family can some from surprising sources sometimes.

Naturally, there’s a slew of other surprises too – other characters, subplots, the action sequences themselves – but I think I’ve made my point, nor do I want to be the individual who spoils the better parts of Fate of the Furious. While the title is a headscratcher at first glance, with a marketing campaign that was shrouded in mystery and uncharacteristically generic trailers, rest assured that as the first twenty minutes unfold you’ll get what the plot is. By the time the title card and credits roll at the conclusion, you’ll feel nothing short of satisfaction. Many franchises do their best to try to connect sequels together but feel more like their storytelling glue is bound by shoestrings, leading to the smallest of details to become unraveled. Chris Morgan has had the luxury of creating a universe in which characters we’ve known for years have layers yet to be peeled back and exposed. With just two movies left before the book is closed for good Morgan, with F. Gary Gray sitting in the director’s chair (with hopefully a return planned for the filmmaker), has planted the seeds for a conclusion that is anyone’s guess. Focusing less on the bullets and more on throttle, Fate of the Furious is pure escapist fun that starts off the summer movie season with peeling tires instead of squealing brakes. If you’ve loved the series thus far – then you’ll absolutely adore this newest installment.

Reber’s Rating – 94.5/100


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