One of the givens of Fast and Furious is that the latest movie will be bigger and more enjoyably ludicrous than the last. The miniskirts will be shorter, the toys zoomier, the stunts more delirious. Yet, like every successful series, this one delivers its sleek new bits and pieces in reassuringly familiar packaging. James Bond has queen and country. Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto — the monotonal Fast and Furious paterfamilias — has cars and camaraderie, an ideal combo for movies about American outsiders whose home has always been one another.
Family is the most important word in these movies, the one that’s dropped with moist emotion and hushed Sunday-sermon reverence. It’s the idea that has held the franchise together — movie to movie, race to race, prayer to prayer — in an episodic soap about kith, kin and custom cars. It’s what connects this franchise to its fans, another kind of family, though one that pays to sit down at the table. It’s what has always bound Dom to his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and the rest of his crew, most crucially Brian, the cop-turned-soul-partner played by Paul Walker, who died in an off-set car collision in 2013.
The latest movie’s title, The Fate of the Furious, seems like a nod to the lingering existential crisis created by Walker’s death, as do the tears that fall in the story. They’re shed over time but before they are, the movie does what’s expected, which is cut loose attractive characters in different choreographed formations in assorted machines and locales. Directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), this one opens in Havana, where the young local beauties swirling around Dom and Letty move and dress more or less like the other young beauties in the series, as if they were part of a continuing global house party, this time with Che Guevara and prettily peeling buildings.
Gray, an action-movie veteran, gets that party started quickly. Dom and Letty are hanging out in the new Havana, which in this case means chatting in Spanish and English while checking out a vintage car with a boat motor under the hood. It’s a nice emblem of the movie’s old-school opener, which involves some macho posturing that leads to Dom racing in a rusted-out beater. As he drives, ripping past one classic American car after another, he clutches the wheel, the camera pointing up at him. Like a supermodel’s long legs, Diesel’s sculptured, often-bared arms are one of his trademarks, and they do a lot of work, signifying strength and command. Here, though, they shudder.
Both the old cars and Dom’s unsteadiness set up a movie that clearly still needs to contend with Walker’s death even as it delivers the goods. To that end, the filmmakers quickly isolate Dom from his crew (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, et al.) and give him a proxy heartbreak. Elsewhere, the franchise’s increasingly most valuable players, Dwayne Johnson and the bouncy Jason Statham, take care of business, going hard and funny. Kurt Russell shows up as a man in black with a newbie played by Scott Eastwood, whose resemblance to Big Daddy Clint adds intertextual genre frisson. Charlize Theron slinks in as a villainous hacker in silly blond dreads, jetting around while doing a lot of fast, furious typing.
Punctuated by crashes and drums of doom, the movie moves to a dependable blockbuster beat, as a little exposition is followed by an action scene, and more exposition is followed by a bigger, noisier, nuttier action scene. As the cars zig and the story line zags, these sequences grow baroque, defying reason and gravity, which have progressively come under siege in this franchise. In New York, cars swan-dive off buildings or cut corners like rampaging dogs or, outfitted with Bond-like gizmos, harpoon a bucking ride. There’s an odd Melville thing going on here: In a Bond-esque battle in Russia that typifies the franchise’s expanded reach, a submarine breaches like Moby-Dick.
Zoom, crash, repeat with squealing, burning and flaming tires — it’s all predictably absurd and self-mocking, and often a giggle when not a total yawn. The tedium that sets in is a function of the blockbuster ethos in which everything must smash and ignite so that a solitary man can emerge phoenix-like to fight another franchise fight. Yet while Dom endures baptisms of fire, he is never genuinely alone. Part of the draw of the Fast and Furious movies has always been their multicultural cast, but the series’ strength is a utopian communitarianism that insists the group must be greater than any one man or nation. That’s why Dom will only ever be the franchise’s co-pilot; it’s the crew that rules.