Thursday, April 27, 2017

Driving It Home: The Fate of the Furious

Dwayne Johnson in The Fate of the Furious. (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Universal Pictures)

Thank god for The Fate of the Furious. Thank god for stick shifts, nitrous, and roaring engines. Thank god for fisticuffs, explosions, and cheesy one-liners. Thank god for beautifully toned bodies and huge flexing muscles. Thank god for Dwayne Johnson! Thank god that one of the highest-grossing worldwide franchises is as sensational, self-aware, and exciting as this. If you’re not on board, I understand – it’s easy to be cynical about the blockbuster movie market, and sometimes it’s hard to just relax and have a good time. But boy oh boy, are these Furious movies ever a good time. I don’t understand exactly how they keep getting better and better… but they do!

Their budgets are definitely a major factor. Want to keep a 20-year-old franchise afloat? All you need, apparently, is a cool $250 million and the liberal application of jaw-dropping set pieces, ever-raising stakes, a bigger and more enthusiastic cast, and an irrepressible sense of humour. This is the rare case in which the Hollywood covenant actually works to everyone’s benefit: we keep paying to see these raucous roller-coaster rides, and they keep working to ensure that we’ll come back for the next one. It’s to the credit of everyone involved – director F. Gary Gray, writer Chris Morgan, Universal Pictures, and the entire cast – that this is done by preserving the fundamental ethos of the Furious franchise (fast cars, tough dudes, hot babes, and capital-F Family) while still working to top the crazy shit that happened in the last one.

We’re on number eight now (hence the coy assonance of the title), so perhaps Gray and co. felt it would be appropriate to open this latest film by bringing us back to its roots with a good ol’-fashioned street race. This time it’s not spoiler-heavy neon-lit tuners in L.A.; it’s battered Buicks with beefed-up boat engines in Cuba, where even his honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) can’t stop Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) from scratching that old itch. Of course, this sun-soaked paradise of impromptu car-tuning festivals (short shorts required) is soon invaded by cyberterrorist du jour Cipher (Charlize Theron), who “recruits” him in order to create the only villain that Furious franchise fans could never see coming: Dom himself.** His ragtag family, brought together by seven previous adventures (and a shared grief over the loss of their pal Brian, and the real-life cardboard cut-out named Paul Walker who played him), has to track Dom down and find out what Cipher is holding over his head that would cause him to turn his back on the only thing that’s ever really mattered to him: his family.

Charlize Theron and Vin Diesel in The Fate of the Furious.

In the midst of this plot – whose beats are just familiar enough to be comforting, and executed with just enough originality to still be engaging – we’re treated to a bevy of action sequences that all seek to outdo one another, whether through comedy, visceral impact, or both. Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs, late of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, is introduced in a gut-busting scene as he performs a fearsome haka with his daughter’s soccer team. Later on, after being thrown in a top-security facility, he and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw escape the joint in a prison-break sequence that produces even more laughs through sheer kick-ass bravado (an amuse-bouche: Hobbs is shot by security at point blank range, but doesn’t go down; he muses, “Hmm. Rubber bullets. Bad idea,” and rages onward like an 18-wheeler with no brakes). In one of the more original set pieces I’ve seen in an action film, Cipher hacks into New York City’s self-driving cars, creating a veritable zombie horde of driverless missiles that flow through the Big Apple’s streets like a raging river of steel. The film’s show-stopping climax atop a frozen Russian lake (with a nuclear sub looming up from underneath) is balanced against an absolutely hilarious close-quarters escape sequence in which Shaw gunfights his way out of a plane while keeping a baby carrier out of harm’s way. All of it is filmed, performed, and edited for maximum pulse-pounding effect, and all of it is tuned to a gleeful frequency that never lets the film’s madcap energy droop, even for a second. It’s a fucking blast.

By this point, if you’re not on board already, there’s probably no convincing you. But that won’t stop The Fate of the Furious from doing its damnedest to make a convert out of you. Every cast member – even the grating Tyrese Gibson and blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em performers like Luke Evans and Helen Mirren – are clearly having the time of their lives. Theron chews up the scenery and spits it out again, proving that there’s no amount of intimidating male physical energy you can put in a room that she can’t overwhelm with her own intensity. Kurt Russell maintains an ear-to-ear grin for his entire tenure on camera, and his new, uninvited understudy – played by milquetoast pretty-boy Scott Eastwood – is treated with the same derision by the characters as you’re sure to feel as an audience member. Everything about the film is precision-engineered to deliver exactly what would most excite, please, and satisfy an audience, and it somehow never dips low enough that it becomes pandering.

Every time I walk out of a Furious film, I think, “There’s no way they can top that.” And they just keep proving me wrong. The franchise feels like it takes impish delight in impressing us with just how inventive, energetic, and flat-out fun they can continue to be, despite all the odds stacked against their critical success. Everything I know about long-running blockbuster franchises tells me that a movie like The Fate of the Furious shouldn’t work – but it does. It never happens this way, folks, and it’s not likely to last. Do like Dom, and cherish the moment.

** Note: Everyone saw this coming.

 Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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