Has the Fast & Furious franchise earned a victory lap? That’s the key question behind an appraisal of “Fast X,” a film that brazenly plays like a Greatest Hits collection from a hit artist. Not only does it directly link to the massive, franchise-turning “Fast Five” in its narrative, but it constantly recalls other films in this series either through direct mention or action beats designed to recall similar moments in movies like “Fast & Furious 6,” “Furious 7,” and “The Fate of the Furious.” The script by Dan Mazeau and “Fast Five” director Justin Lin (who left the film after creative differences and whose absence is felt in terms of action choreography) is like a snake eating its own tail, often playing like a parody of the franchise more than a new entry that cruises on its own four wheels. Even as it’s spinning through enjoyably goofy action set pieces, most of them enlivened greatly by a fun performance from Jason Momoa, there’s a desperate familiarity to all of “Fast X” that makes it even more like reheated leftovers than it has before. This is reportedly the start of a trilogy that will close the series. Let’s hope they come up with at least one fresh idea in the next two flicks.
Maybe it’s the leaden way in which director Louis Leterrier treats these beloved characters, but the opening scenes of “Fast X” are among the worst in all ten films, a cavalcade of conversations about family, legacy, and other FF tropes. It’s one thing for a character like Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) to preach the importance of family, but it’s another with notes of Charlie Puth playing over gauzy shots of him looking at press stills of Paul Walker. There was an opportunity here to give us “Old Man Dom”—he is 56, after all—but it’s as if Diesel and his team have no idea what that looks like other than to make their tough guy a little wistful. There’s an odd construction to these early scenes that use the oft-parodied trope of Dom saying “family” as a constant whipping post. They diminish what these films were at their best (installments five through seven) by reducing Toretto and his gang to their most obvious qualities. No one expects great character depth at this point, but do we need so many scenes of Dom grunting “family” and looking worried when he sees his son ‘Little B’ (Leo Abelo Perry)?
“Fast X” improves greatly when Momoa’s Dante Reyes begins his plan to torture Dom and his furious family. Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) head off to Rome on a mission, but it’s a trap designed by Reyes, the son of Hernan Reyes, who was killed when Dom and company rolled a safe through Rio in “Fast Five.” Dante says repeatedly that he doesn’t want to kill Dom; he wants him to suffer. That apparently entails an elaborate scheme to frame the gang as terrorists after a bomb explodes in the Italian capital. Following the construction of these films, at least since Vin and The Rock broke up, it’s just a way to divide the crew. Roman, Tej, Ramsey, and Han (Sung Kang) flee to London, where they run into Shaw (Jason Statham), of course. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) ends up captured, and only Mr. Nobody’s daughter Tess (Brie Larson) and Cipher (Charlize Theron) can get her out. And that crowded synopsis doesn’t even include John Cena, Jordana Brewster, Daniela Melchior, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, or Alan Ritchson. It’s a crowded street race of a blockbuster.
And yet all of these famous faces are given so little to do. The Roman/Tej banter has never felt more tired; Moreno & Mirren each get one “supporting Dom” scene that sounds like A.I. wrote it; Cena gets trapped with Perry on an awkwardly conceived and executed road trip; only Theron and Rodriguez get to have any real fun in their subplot, fighting it out in one of the film’s best combat scenes. For the most part, “Fast X” is the Dom & Dante Show, and the film is at its most effective when it bounces Diesel & Momoa’s very different screen personas off each other. Diesel seems more stoic than ever while Momoa plays to the back row, going for flamboyant psychotic with every scene. He’s like a giant child in a superhero’s body, sticking out his tongue and gleefully hopping into chaos with a “Here we go!”
“Fast X” opens with a repurposing of one of the most famous scenes in the franchise from “Fast Five,” only inserting a de-aged Momoa into the action that fans remember. It’s almost as if that inciting idea became the creative force behind the entire film. Someone listed the best action scenes on a whiteboard and then asked how the energy of Momoa’s Dante could shift them. Sometimes it works. A drag race scene in Rio captures that more grounded energy from when the series was actually about people driving fast instead of defying physics. There’s a plane dropping a car again and harpoons with wires on the end. Even when the goofy action is working, it’s hard to shake the sense that all of “Fast X” is an echo of something you’ve seen before, and often done better with a director who understands stunt work and action geography better than the mediocre Leterrier. It doesn’t help that “Fast X” often looks poorly rendered in CGI terms, with actors more obviously against green-screen backgrounds than before. It reduces the stakes when we’re clearly watching something that’s more visual effects than stunt work.
All of this “rock band encore with new pyrotechnics” approach becomes even less forgivable because of where “Fast X” lands. Or rather doesn’t. Without spoiling, Diesel has revealed that this is the start of a franchise-ending trilogy, and that information probably leaked pre-premiere to soften the blow of a blockbuster with no ending. I’m talking “Avengers: Infinity War” level climax here. Characters are left presumed dead, in jeopardy, and still divided. This movie’s race down memory lane goes arguably nowhere, forcing fans to wait for satisfaction. It makes “Fast X” into less of a victory lap than a loud, expensive revving of engines that haven’t even crossed the starting line. It just adds to the sense that this isn’t so much about family or fun as it is finances.
In theaters tomorrow, May 18th.