Friday, April 14, 2017

The Fate of the Furious: Over-revved

The Fate of the Furious (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for relentless, excessive violence and destruction, and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.14.17

Well, here’s a reason not to get a car with computer-controlled ignition and navigational systems.

Dismayed by the realization that their buddy Dominic has gone rogue, the rest of the
gang — from left, roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), Little Nobody
(Scott Eastwood), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and
Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) — ponders the next move.
You just never know when an evil megalomaniac bent on world domination might hack the vehicle, to crash it — and hundreds of others — into a Russian ambassador’s armor-plated limousine, in order to steal a suitcase containing the launch codes for all of his country’s nuclear missiles.

(Hey. It could happen.)

Although there’s some vicarious delight to be experienced from this and the many other big-ticket sequences in director F. Gary Gray’s newest installment in this franchise, The Fate of the Furious is a textbook example of wretched excess: too little substance, too much spectacle.

Way too much. At 136 minutes, this gas-guzzling behemoth is at least one spectacular action set-piece too long. Probably the final one, which races on and on and on.

Something important also has been lost, since this series debuted in 2001. Back then, the stunt driving was awesome, the gear-shifting thrills delivering plenty of accelerated excitement. But the newer films — and particularly this one — make it difficult to admire the efforts of stunt director Spiro Razatos.

It’s patently obvious that all the vehicular skirmishes have been sweetened (or perhaps fabricated entirely) by CGI wizards. The spectacle feels no more real than the outer space battles in the Star Wars franchise. Granted, the result remains suspenseful ... but it’s a lot more fun to be impressed by golly-gee-wow stunt drivers, than by a gaggle of artists hunched over computer keyboards.

The adrenaline-laden thrill has been lost.

As has some of this series’ humanity. As several characters in this new film repeatedly remind us, the most important thing — the only important thing — is family. That means characters interacting with each other, at something beyond a superficial level. The banter may be droll in Chris Morgan’s script, but Gray too frequently cuts away from potential emotion, in order to showcase yet another vehicular chase or smack-down fist fight.

The one exception is poor Dominic (Dom) Toretto, who gets put through the wringer this time. To the credit of star Vin Diesel, we definitely feel the guy’s anguish; even within his limited acting range, he’s adept at quiet despair and seething, barely repressed fury.

Fans of long-running TV action/adventure shows know that, eventually, desperate writers succumb to plot lines that have become well-worn clichés: the one where a core character succumbs to a horrific disease, but pulls out at the last second; the one where a beloved character gets amnesia, and doesn’t recognize anybody; the one where a long-trusted character suddenly seems to have allied with the Dark Side, and must be hunted by former comrades.

Morgan’s script follows the latter template, kicking off as Dom — enjoying a Cuban honeymoon with longtime sweetie Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and all of their friends — is approached one morning by an imposing woman in long dreadlocks (Charlize Theron). She has a job for him; he politely declines. She pushes the point; his graciousness fades, and he declines again.

She shows him something on her smart phone. Dom’s expression turns cold. And angry. And — just perceptibly — resigned.

Back in the States, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is assigned to assemble the gang for a mission in Berlin, where they’re to retrieve an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device that has fallen into the wrong hands. Hobbs calls Dom, who rallies the troops; they all head to Germany, saddle up some fast cars, and deftly execute the heist.

At which point, Dom takes off with the EMP, subsequently delivering it to the much wronger hands of the mysterious woman — dubbed Cipher — who we subsequently learn is the world’s most notorious cyber-terrorist.

Hobbs is arrested; the others get away. As a shackled Hobbs is taken to prison, he’s reunited with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the incarcerated black ops assassin who served as the previous film’s Big Bad; and with the enigmatic Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), the square-jawed fed who operates quid pro quo and outside the law. He’s accompanied by Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood), a younger protégé who quickly demonstrates a tendency to act before he thinks.

Mr. Nobody offers Hobbs redemption: Gather the troops again, find and detain Dom and Cipher, retrieve the EMP, and all will be forgiven. Oh, and you’ll be working alongside Shaw.

This film series has a droll habit of transforming yesterday’s adversaries into today’s partners, soon to be friends. Hobbs was introduced as an enemy, back in 2011’s Fast Five, only to become one of the gang; savvy heads recognized Johnson’s value to the franchise. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that the equally charismatic Statham benefits from similar “rehabilitation.”

So far, so good. But Gray starts to lose control of his film during the second act, and Cipher’s second heist, of the aforementioned Russian “nuclear football.” This Manhattan-based sequence goes completely off the rails, with scores and scores of vehicles smashed, crashed, pulped, pulverized and otherwise mangled during a protracted sequence that makes the notorious (at the time) indoor mall sequence in 1980’s The Blues Brothers seem tranquil by comparison.

Two things to ponder:

1) Such mindless, gratuitous destruction becomes tasteless after awhile, even in a live-action cartoon of this nature; and, more significantly...

2) The unseen but implied civilian and police casualties, obviously numbering in the hundreds, is reprehensible on a scale that was similarly disturbing in 2013’s Man of Steel.

Indeed, this film is incredibly violent, indiscriminately slaughtering veritable armadas of baddies, along with legions of collateral good guys — cops, soldiers — just doing their jobs. Granted, Gray doesn’t linger on the results of such mayhem, and very little blood is shown ... but a quick cutaway doesn’t erase the image of somebody being shot in the face.

All of which points to this film’s other big problem: It suffers from a nasty, mean-spirited streak that detracts from the otherwise frothy tone. This is particularly true in the case of another character resurrected from an earlier film, obviously present to serve only one purpose.

The cast deserves credit for making the most of this uneven brew. Letty remains steadfast as Dom’s main squeeze, Rodriguez still projecting sufficient tough-chick ’tude as a gal more than able to handle herself. Nathalie Emmanuel shows pluck as Ramsey, the computer genius who developed the God’s Eye surveillance hacking device that figured in a previous film, and reappears here; her accent is particularly charming.

Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges get the best one-liners as the Mutt ’n’ Jeff pair Roman and Tej: the former the ace driver and fast-talking ladies’ man; the latter the genius mechanic and tech-tactician. Eastwood, finally — looking and sounding like his father, more and more — is a hoot as the neophyte who keeps learning, the hard way, of the need to plan. And then improvise.

As always, the cars are to drool over: from a vintage 1956 Ford Fairlane and Subaru WRX, to a gorgeous Lamborghini and — during the climactic sequence on the frozen Barents Sea, near Iceland — a Dodge “Ice” Charger and a Local Motors Rally Fighter.

No surprise: All these skirmishes are quite noisy in their own right, but Brian Tyler’s shrieking, cacophonous score — along with a wealth of equally deafening rap and industrial tunes — will shatter eardrums. Plan accordingly.

Much as I continue to enjoy the interactions between these characters — the chest-thumping bluster between Hobbs and Shaw, the banter between Roman and Tej, even the (rare) intimate moments between Dom and Letty — they’re ill-served and overwhelmed by relentless overkill: the cinematic equivalent of the jacked-up pickups that occasionally roar past us on the freeway, with laughably, ludicrously oversized tires.

That said, I’ve no doubt that this film will be a monster hit; the series fans can’t get enough of such mayhem. At some point, though, spectacle for its own sake becomes tedious, and — based on this newest entry — The Powers That Be are in danger of stripping away the heart that really powers this franchise.

Which would be ironic, given the weight — as with television’s Blue Bloods — that each film has placed on an all-important “shared meal” scene.

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