The Fate of the Furious had me at Havana, the setting for another shock-paddle start to another moving violation of critical standards. Number eight, but who's counting besides accountants?
It's a brilliant pairing of material and locale, the first time a U.S. movie has been filmed in Cuba since U.S. restrictions eased. Havana's vibrancy and the Fast/Furious franchise's velocity fit like a racing glove; a colorful car culture and our favorite car creatures.
Havana is where Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are honeymooning after not dying then tying the knot. In no time there's a beef with a local racer yanking the chain of Dom's cousin, and you know how Dom feels about family. He MacGyvers a jalopy for a white-knuckle street race decided by the first of many impossibilities to come.
The Fate of the Furious doesn't merely suspend disbelief, it expels it like a delinquent student told to never come back. Most of the time that's a plus, when cars flip and tumble like Olympic gymnasts, at one point piling up like sands of time in an urban hourglass. That's easier to believe than the reason why Dom turns on his crew and Diesel's monolithic treachery.
In Havana, Dom is approached by Cipher, played by Charlize Theron with soft dreads and an icy, unblinking glare. Cipher is a cyberterrorist rounding up WMDs. Since Dom already spoiled two of her schemes she'll get him over to her dark side. All it takes is him staring at a cell phone for 10 seconds to go rogue. No explanation yet, and when it comes, it's a face palm.
Diesel portrays Dom breaking bad with even less emotive effort than usual. Let the jowls do the talking. We don't have enough information to know why he has that Riddick face all of a sudden, trying to kill his friends and dissing Letty by kissing Cipher. Everything dramatic about The Fate of the Furious — admittedly not that much — springs from Dom's ill-developed motive. Spoiler alert: It has something to do with family.
More entertaining is a parallel plot involving former FBI agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his running feud with killing machine Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Getting them into the same prison cell block brings three fun additions to the mix: Kurt Russell as Mr. Nobody, a black ops expert pulling strings, Scott Eastwood as his overeager assistant Little Nobody and Helen Mirren in a juicy role better kept secret.
Smart moves, not only for the talent elevation but to take pressure off one-note sidekicks (Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) whose comic relief duties are due to be relieved. Being smart is what keeps these movies so far ahead in the blockbuster game, a franchise that incredibly keeps one-upping itself.
In his series debut, director F. Gary Gray slips into high gear with that Havana sequence and seldom eases up. His centerpiece car-mageddon is an SMH argument against driverless automobile technology, although Cipher's technology might start up a Pinto. Equally thrilling is an impromptu prison riot by Hobbs, Shaw and other uniformed bonecrushers; orange is the new beatdown.
Everyone in the movie barely breaks a sweat or breathes hard, but sitting through Gray's movie can get a little exhausting, overloading our senses. How much furious can our eyes and ears take? But if the worst thing to say about the eighth movie in a 16-year franchise is that it's trying too hard, no problem.
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