"The Fate Of The Furious," Or Vin Diesel Is A National Treasure

The little franchise that could – the one that began with 2001’s relatively small-scale “The Fast And The Furious” – continues its blossom into full-on action movie opium with eighth entry “The Fate Of The Furious.” The death of series star Paul Walker in 2013 made for an especially glum seventh go-round; horror director James Wan was left without a lead halfway through filming and it showed. Gladly, part eight knows very little of the real world, reuniting the franchise with cartoonish thrills and a few of its cast members with the eternally underrated “Straight Outta Compton” filmmaker F. Gary Gray.

But above all, “The Fate Of The Furious” locks up Vin Diesel’s spot as the century’s premier action star. It’s his first time headlining a “Fast” film on his own. He does it beautifully.

January’s delirious “xXx: Return Of Xander Cage” and Diesel’s wonderfully silly performance in it went a long way in reminding of the thespian’s undervalued elasticity. From the beginning of his career (his breakthrough came in 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”), Diesel has been a living, breathing Rorschach test, an enigma of machismo and sensitivity. His self-ascribed “ethnic ambiguity” isn’t what made him into such a towering screen presence, seemingly born to the silver screen, but it’s certainly amplified his “man of the people” persona. He is his audience, not some indestructible Arnold Schwarzenegger clone.

It’s this same accessibility that’s made the “Fast” films into such smashes. Its racial representation – a relatively new thing in blockbusters – isn’t some premeditated thing; it’s the one point where series overlaps with the real world. “Xander Cage” had it, too. In that case, it came packaged with the perfect tonic to Diesel’s recent run of overly moody performances, a refresher seemingly taken to heart by the man himself.

The new Dom Toretto (Diesel) is as multi-dimensional as the character has been, he and his team a long way from commandeering semis full of DVD players. “Fate” has it that Dom’s past is the thing to be commandeered, to be leveraged by a dreadlocked megalomaniacal cyberterrorist named Cipher (a hilarious Charlize Theron) so that Dom has no choice but to turn against his loved ones; to help steal an EMP device and nuclear codes. The “how” and the “why” don’t matter. Only that we’re treated to a convincingly brooding but not humorless Dom and his forsaken but highly motivated team who’ll do anything to get their leader back. And save the world, of course. Not necessarily in that order.

Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) are all back in the fold, hot on Dom’s trail, when a speedball is fired into the mix. Government agent Mr. Nobody (a returning Kurt Russell) abruptly makes an ally out of the team’s mortal enemy, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The man who murdered their beloved Han! It’s an absurd plot twist that shouldn’t work but does because it’s done so confidently, giving both Johnson and Statham more screen time than they had in “Furious 7” – all of it more meaningful.

A hiccup: Getting there isn’t so much fun. The Havana street race that kicks things off is nearly too stupid, and a scene with Hobbs on a soccer pitch is straight out of a bad family movie, a thoughtless attempt to humanize a character that doesn’t require it. But by the time cars start dropping out of skyscrapers onto the New York City streets below, F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Chris Morgan have done more than just gotten into the spirit of the franchise; they’ve kicked off an hour-long run of some its best setpieces. The pic’s climax is a terrific marriage between tone and resources, coming off so much better than the “Die Another Day” comparisons its aroused in many critics. Tyrese’s cheesy one-liners and all.

Better yet, one of the series’ biggest running jokes – characters coming back from the dead – is paid off brilliantly in act three on the back of a gleeful cameo that will not be spoiled here. It might require patience through a less than stellar first act, but stick around and be paid handsomely.

Early stumbling blocks aside, F. Gary Gray is a pro’s pro, arguably the most talented filmmaker to join the “Fast” family. He proves much better equipped for the mayhem that Wan was, dovetailing with Vin Diesel the producer’s serious-with-a-side-of-silly sensibilities. It’s a match made in hot rod heaven, begging that Gray come back to give the series the head-to-toe white knuckler that “Fate” isn’t quite. But most of the film confidently walks a thin line between reinvention and legacy act, showing that one of Universal’s most prized properties has at least a half tank of gas left in it, that it can meaningfully evolve without getting a lick smarter – just how we want it.

And most of all, it cements Vin Diesel as the cool, everything-to-everyone movie star of our time, the thing he’s always teased. He carries the movie effortlessly, like the guy that his co-star (Johnson) has always tried so hard to be. In this context, the duo’s rumored rocky relationship makes all the sense in the world – but it doesn’t change that Vin is king.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: April 14, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenwriter: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Charlize Theron, Elsa Pataky, Kurt Russell, Scott Eastwood
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language)