With a strong sense of self-awareness and appetite for insanity, the F. Gary Gray directed “The Fate of the Furious” is an entertaining genre film that relishes in its ridiculousness.
Lush green vegetation, glistening waters, sunburst skies—no, it’s not LA this time. It’s sunny ol’ Havana. It’s the first production to have come to the island in over 50 years. And to have the giant American franchise be the first to come to the beautiful shores of the once-embargoed island certainly signals a sense of bravado in the production. Not only is F. Gary Gray informing the audience that this is not your ordinary ‘Furious’ movie, he’s also signaling to us his intent to add his own spin and sense of moxie to the standout series. This is a new world and a new director. And quite frankly, thank god for that.
Before his critical and commercial gem “Straight Outta Compton” hit the multiplexes two years ago, F. Gary Gray was primarily known for his action-thriller-mystery genre films. From “The Italian Job” to “Law Abiding Citizen,” Mr. Gray’s features are the kinds of flicks that were just as syrupy and salty as the Coca-Cola and popcorn from the concession stand. Which is a great quality to exude, for the director knows how to capture blockbuster films like few other do—with high standards of stylization, a penchant for a good story and characters that breathe a sense of depth. And while “The Fate of the Furious” certainly has a few of these elements, it can’t help but be hindered by the stained legacy of the last seven pictures.
The series has had its fair share of identity crises, going from a tale told in one town about clandestine street racing to multi-international heist films to where it now rests as a spy caper. And with each reiteration of its narrative, almost every time new director was brought on board. From “Boyz n the Hood” director John Singleton to “Better Luck Tomorrow” director Justin Lin to “Insidious” director James Wan, the series has had its fair share of shake-ups in focus. The longest running tenure ended up belonging to Justin Lin who oversaw the film’s transition from racing to heist genres. Thankfully, with the talented F. Gary Gray taking the helm of the waning series, it seems the old girl might have some juice left in her yet.
The film picks up where it left off—open-ended. We discover that Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) have semi-retired, traveling to Havana to enjoy their honeymoon. But of course, nothing lasts in this fast-paced film. Soon after Dom wins a fiery adrenaline-fueled race (a seeming necessity in the franchise), the audience is plunged into the espionage plot as Dom is blackmailed into betraying his team by the vindictive Cipher (Charlize Theron).
Soon enough, the ensemble cast are recruited back into the dangerous world of stealing, shooting, driving, clattering away at keyboards and speaking in gravelly voices. And much like previous few films, the ragtag team make their oft-required humorous introductions, much in the same vein as the “Ocean’s Trilogy.” Luke Hobbs, (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) now coaching his daughter’s soccer team, performs the Manu Siva Tau (the Samoan war dance) with his daughter’s team before kickoff. Secret agent Frank Petty (Kurt Russell) throws out a few one-liners while taking off his secret service sunglasses. His lackey Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood) naively assumes he can intimidate the imposing Hobbs. Funnymen Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) continuously bicker as they race away from impeding capture or mortality. Death, imprisonment or betrayal never seems to have the same sort of gravity it would in the real world—which isn’t necessarily bad.
With lines like “Dominic Toretto just went rogue” or the Jaws-pulled “we’re going to need a bigger truck!” one could imagine that this is just yet another bad genre film. And while Mr. Gray rehashes some of the old action tropes, it’s not overly obnoxious in its formal or stylistic portrayal. Even its intense fascination with 1980s-inspired hypermasculinity and man’s will over machine (computers or cars) does not hold back this fun-filled flick. Coupled with its frequent homages to classic action films like “Escape from New York,” “Die Hard,” and the first iteration of the series, the film savors its moments of insanity. Whether it’s the necessary peripeteia or melodramatic undertones, the film rarely stops to observe anything for more than few seconds before hitting the Nos and flying into the next sequence.
Although F. Gary Gray may have had an Oscar nominations under his sleeve with “Straight Outta Compton,” he most certainly understood that this film would not add to that tally. Instead, the director allows the film to relish in its high-octane absurdity. It’s a film that differs from its blockbuster counterparts partly because it knows it’s a ridiculous ride. While the Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer films have so many quick cuts that there is seldom any spatial or narrative legibility, Gray’s “Fate of the Furious” maintains its focus and direction throughout whilst having fun doing so. Sure, there are lulls in the narrative or characterizations, but that can be expected. It is the eighth film in the series after all. And what for what it’s worth, it may be the best one since the original.
“Fate of the Furious” is slated to be released April 14.