Thursday, May 18, 2023

Review: "Fast X" is fun, and that might just be enough

You know what? Maybe there’s some gas left in this tank after all. 

I wasn’t sure after the last two entries in the Fast & Furious saga, 2017’s The Fate of the Furious and 2021’s F9, the two worst films in the franchise. The former had its moments, but with a dark and miserabilist story that split Vin Diesel from the rest of the ‘family’ right at the moment the franchise first had to craft a film from the ground-up without his on-screen best buddy Paul Walker, it miscalibrated how grim the series could go before it became dull and off-putting. F9 inherited many of these problems, once again sending Dominic Toretto off on his own in a too-dour plot, but it floundered even harder because it felt like a movie being made by someone who was fundamentally unhappy to be making it. Justin Lin made the series the singularly silly (but deeply lovable) international success it is today with his run of entries from Tokyo Drift through Fast & Furious 6, but with F9, any joy he once had smashing these characters and cars together felt like it was long gone, and it wasn’t particularly surprising when he walked off the set of Fast X a week into production. Whether Diesel had simply become too demanding to work with, or Lin just didn’t have another one of these movies in him (both perfectly understandable, and both probably true to varying degrees), a change had to be made. 


Fast X (eventually helmed by Louis Leterrier, of Transporter fame) is not the series in its prime – even as it makes copious references to the most beloved entry, Fast Five – but it is a surprisingly solid return to form. While Lin’s fingerprints are still all over the film – he co-wrote the screenplay, and surely had most of the set-pieces thoroughly mapped out – Leterrier does seem happy to be here, and there’s a general energy to the finished film that was sorely lacking in the last two installments, an energy that can only be described as ‘fun.’ Diesel glowers less, and has some real human interactions (with Dom’s son ‘Little B,’ with Michelle Rodriguez’ Lettie, and a few others over the course of the adventure) while the supporting cast has a greater pep in their step, and the action feels invigorated by its physics-defying stupidity, rather than weighed down by the labor of it all, as I felt watching F9. The film successfully recaptures at least some of the scale and insanity of the series’ best entries (Fast Five and Furious 7, if you’re asking me), and while it has its fair share of issues, by the time we make it to the bonkers, go-for-broke cliffhanger ending, I was on board again. This is, at least in part, the series I fell in love with; the spark, which I feared completely extinguished this time two years ago, is still flickering.



It certainly helps to have some new blood who seem genuinely thrilled to be here. Jason Momoa, one of the most infectiously fun actors to come along in recent memory, is chewing scenery and making a meal out of it as Dante, the latest in a long line of antagonists swearing revenge on the extended Toretto family, and if you’re gonna shamelessly do the Joker thing with your villain – the foe who is always and inexplicably five steps ahead at any given time, entertained by watching the heroes scramble through the maze he’s constructed for them with an inhuman degree of foresight and resources – you need someone like Momoa who’s going to throw himself into the project with gusto. That he does, and while those allergic to weapons-grade overacting should probably stay away, I’m not sure they were coming to the tenth Fast & Furious film in the first place. Momoa is fun, plain and simple, and while his enthusiasm is not enough, on its own, to get the series back on its feet, he offers a much-needed shot in the arm the film around him is able to build upon.


(An aside I have no idea where else to put, but I need to get off my chest: Momoa is playing the son of Fast Five villain Hernan Reyes, despite the Hawaiian Momoa looking absolutely nothing like the Portuguese Joaquim de Almeida. This, it seems, is a Fast franchise tradition. Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, and John Cena do not in any way look like siblings, Jason Statham is a full twenty years older than his on-screen sister Vanessa Kirby, and Fast X also gives us Brie Larson as the daughter of Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, which beggars all kinds of belief. Nobody who is meant to be a blood relation of anyone else in this series looks like they could possibly be related in the real world. At this point, I appreciate their commitment to the bit.) 


The rest of the cast is as large, reliable, and unwieldy as ever. The film has a truckload of returning characters, a surprising amount of new ones (all related, naturally, to characters from the past), and a lot of cameos, and the results are almost inevitably hit or miss. Michelle Rodriguez continues to be the unsung MVP of post-Paul Walker Fast & Furious, and Lettie actually gets some pretty fun material this time around, including a spotlight role in the big first-act action set piece, and is later paired off with Charlize Theron, who is having a lot more fun here than she was in her introduction two movies ago. The Tyrese Gibson/Ludacris dynamic is undeniably tired at this point, but the two also have a chemistry you can’t fake, and Nathalie Emmanuel does a lot of heavy lifting keeping that side of the movie humming (Sung Kang is also great, as ever, but apart from a big scene with Jason Statham, he doesn’t have a ton to do this time around). John Cena gets paired with Dom’s son, played by Leo Perry, in the most winning and heartfelt of the film’s many subplots; Cena was inexplicably disallowed from having fun in F9, but he’s having a blast here, bringing the same kind of humanity to bear here as we saw in James Gunn’s Peacemaker. And the aforementioned Brie Larson honestly seems like she’s enjoying herself several times more here than she ever has in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – like Momoa, she’s a shot of energy any franchise ten films deep would be lucky to have. 


The problem comes, as it often has in the latter-day Fast & Furious movies, with spreading the plot – such as it is – among such a massive ensemble. The film’s first and third acts are relatively focused and move at a very good clip, but the second act is structured a lot like F6 and F9, with the cast broken up into smaller chunks and scattered to the winds. As in those films, it quickly becomes tiring, feeling less like one is viewing a cohesive movie than binge-watching a season of the Fast & Furious TV show. Some vignettes work better than others: any time we cut to Cena or Rodriguez, it’s a treat; cutting back to the Ludacris/Tyrese side of things, we’re risking a Pete Davison cameo that, if nothing else, gives viewers a perfect opportunity to go use the bathroom. I don’t think it would be such an issue for me this time around if the macro, structural editing were better; we cut much too quickly between stories, when letting sequences play out at length is almost always preferable, and some scenes are inexplicably too far apart from the moment they’re reacting to. 


After the first act, Diesel is separated from the main cast for most of the remaining run-time – for the third film in a row. His solo adventures are more entertaining than they were in films 8 or 9 – he’s got Momoa and Larson to bounce off of, and a new character played by Daniela Melchior who he gets sappy with preaching about family, aka Dom’s comfort zone – and his role in the climax is very fun. Still, one has to wonder: Does none of the main cast want to work with Diesel anymore? Or does Dom simply not have a ready-made partner to bounce off of with Paul Walker’s Brian out of the picture? We can only speculate about the former question, at least until the tell-all oral history is one day published, but the latter seems plausible. The series lost something very real when Walker died young and tragically, and Dom simply isn’t as compelling a brooding solo hero as he was one half of an odd couple buddy duo. Fast X does a better job compensating for this absence than the other Walker-less films, but the absence is still inevitably felt. 


The action is very good this time around – which is to say, it’s ludicrous, it’s profoundly implausible, and it bears a greater resemblance to Looney Tunes than it does the franchise’s street racing origins. But those are all features, not bugs. The Justin Lin-directed action in F9 was theoretically cool – Magnets! Outer space! Cars swinging on vines! – but there was something about it that felt workmanlike and joyless to me, like the team going through the motions of fulfilling our expectations for crazy action mayhem, rather than actually having a screw loose and going bonkers with Universal’s money. Fast X is closer to the real deal. The big first act set piece involves a giant spherical bomb rolling through the streets of Rome, with Dom and company having to use their cars to move it out of the path of destruction, and it all feels much more energized than anything in F9. The sequence’s climax, in which Dom sets off a Rube-Goldberg-ian set of pinball physics with a crane, made me cackle like a maniac and applaud. Much of the film’s action continues in this vein. You can feel Justin Lin’s hand in all of it – he may have left the production during the first week, but a lot of movie directing happens well before the cameras roll, and he obviously would have dreamt up most of this months ahead of time – but Louis Leterrier’s execution is just a little bit sillier and looser and, at least in relation to F9, more joyous. It works. There is a gonzo lunacy to the action in this one that at times reminds me less of the earlier Fast & Furious movies than the current crop of mainland Chinese blockbusters, like The Wandering Earth films, where the goal isn’t in any way physical plausibility or tactile photographic referentiality, but seeing how unbelievably big and ridiculous an image one can imagine and using the many digital tools of modern cinema to achieve it. The last big action beat in Fast X – involving a car, two massive gas tankers, a dam, and a whole lotta NOS – is absolutely one of those moments. 


It also leads to a good ol’ fashioned serial cliffhanger, where the lives of just about every named character hang in the balance and there is no vaguely plausible way for any of them to survive. I can imagine this potentially annoying some viewers – the movie isn’t called Fast X: Part One, even though that’s exactly the structure they’re going for here – but I absolutely loved it. The series has never done a big cliffhanger before, but it’s a move that fits the franchise like a glove. Fast & Furious is, at its heart, a crazy soap opera with big cars, big emotions, and big explosions, and the only thing it’s been missing is a big “TO BE CONTINUED” moment. Here, we finally get one, with a cliffhanger that would be right at home in a 1966 Batman episode. It’s fun, and it works – I am excited to see how the characters get out of this ridiculous jam, and I’m looking forward to seeing what is (hopefully) the final installment pull on all the threads they’ve cast out here. By the end, Fast X has successfully reignited at least some of the enthusiasm I once had for this series, and they’ve set up a climactic chapter that’s poised to feature every figure of note who’s still around to get behind the wheel. 


Color me surprised. This isn’t a perfect film, or a great one, and if you want big Hollywood spectacle, Fast X is probably going to finish well behind John Wick 4, Mission Impossible 7, and Spider-Verse 2 in the 2023 franchise picture race. But after the series’ last two installments, I wasn’t sure if this one would even be able to put up a fight – and it does. ‘Fun’ is all I’ve ever asked of these movies, and dammit: I had fun.   

Support my work at Ko-fi ☕️

Subscribe to JAPANIMATION STATION, our podcast about the wide, wacky world of anime:  

Subscribe to The Weekly Stuff Podcast on all podcasting platforms:


No comments:

Post a Comment