The Fate of the Furious

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You could do a lot worse for popcorn entertainment than the absurdly over-the-top—and intentionally so—The Fate of the Furious, the latest installment in the franchise that started as a muscle car (and muscle star) B-movie about 15 years ago and has now become a huge Hollywood action franchise (that remains a B-movie; funny, that). Low budget or big budget, the series delivers what it intends.

The most important thing to remember when viewing the first hour of this absurdist action opera  is that the resistance you are feeling will ultimately prove futile, because at about the halfway mark the movie is going to break you down, force you to submit and, by its conclusion, (almost) earn your forgiveness for unadulterated silliness. As popcorn movies today go, you won’t be bored and may even end up half tickled.

Director F. Gary Gray, who scored big with Straight Outta Compton, takes the help for this eight installment, and he wisely stays close to formula, letting his ragtag band of underdogs save the day while moving the series past the elephant that is still in the room.

The untimely 2013 death of co-star Paul Walker has reshaped the narrative in the last two films, and The Fate of The Furious—beyond the octane, attitude, stunts, struts and patently absurd set pieces—is all about family, a theme shoehorned into nearly every scene. The picture gracefully exits the Walker character (as well as that of Jordana Brewster, unfortunately) with a few simple lines about retirement, then it’s back to business.

It’s a movie that plays, heavily, on techno-babble jargon and the idea that computer hackers control not just the world but also our psyches—silly as hell, yes—and one that is damned entertaining once it gets rolling.

Picture opens in Havana with Dom Toreto (Vin Diesel) and love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), contemplating settling down. But first, a mad chase through Havana visualized in super-saturated primaries, string bikini babes as trophies and, you guessed it, a lot of destruction and one-liners.

Enter Charlize Theron as a sophisticated hacker named Cipher, a dreadlocked cyber terrorist who informs Dom that he’ll soon be her right hand man. She has some past dirt on him, you see, and before long she’s controlling him, the pair stealing some weapons that will give her world domination (what else?). Theron and Diesel are, surprisingly, a well-matched power couple in this picture. All of this happens from a secret jet that is off the grid.

Out to thwart this plan are the usual crew, more or less led by Dwayne Johnson, Ludacris, Tyrese, Rodriguez and the addition of intelligence operative Kurt Russell and bumbling protégé Scott Eastwood and a comically effective Jason Statham as a former arch enemy who joins forces with the team to help defeat Cipher. Helen Mirren, of all people, turns up as Statham’s mother and gets two very funny scenes.

The plot—and there’s a lot of it—spins out of control as Dom steals a nuclear device that will allow Cipher and her baddies to hijack a Russian sub equipped with a powerful missile, and the family follows Dom to the icy Russian compound and all hell breaks loose. And then there’s the very funny sequence where Statham carries a toddler during an aerial shootout. There’s more, but why bother?

There is something of a kick to seeing Helen Mirren paired with Jason Statham and Charlize Theron with Vin Diesel (himself a proven dramatic actor in Sidney Lumet’s overlooked Find Me Guilty). What happens in these moments is a bridge between what might be called high and low art. Any way you cut it, it forces an evaluation of our tendency to marginalize and bucket actors as serious, not serious, arty, commercial—you get where I’m going.

Theron makes a superb James Bond villain, cruising the atmosphere in her “invisible” plane which cannot be tracked via any GPS. With the exception of her opening scene in Havana, she’s on the move—above Earth, beneath the sea, wherever, and her presence in this movie as calculating smooth operator is a real hoot. And she knows it.

Director F. Gary Gray sure knows how to pile drive the action, and to deny him props for the ingeniousness in this movie would be highly impolite. Take, for example, the marvelously orchestrated destruction of (half of) Manhattan at the hands of an army of GPS-controlled cars that suddenly spring to life during Dom’s attempted getaway? Or how about the climactic race across the Russian ice with a submarine beneath, trying to break through the surface and launch its weapon? Well, how about it?

Is it time to go yet? I never thought I would say so, but not quite.Any movie that co-stars both Mirren and Ludacris is doing something right in my book.

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