Thursday, May 25, 2023

Shifting into Tenth Gear: Fast X (2023) Review

Director: Louis Leterrier 

Notable Cast: (deep breath) Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, John Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Scott Eastwood, Daniela Melchior, Alan Ritchson, Helen Mirren, Brie Larson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Rita Moreno, Joaquim de Almeida, Leo A. Perry


Every two to three years I get the pleasure of revisiting the Fast & Furious franchise and, in a rather unfortunate manner, the last couple of films in the series - not counting the surprisingly fun spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, have been declining returns in creativity and quality. Not that Fate of the Furious or F9: The Fast Saga don’t have their strengths or their fans, but compared to the first of the fifth, sixth, and seventh films, they just were missing that special heart that beat underneath the illogical scripts and outlandish action set pieces. 


Thus, my expectations were metered when Fast X, the tenth entry into this billion-dollar grossing action blockbuster series, was finally on track to vroom vroom its way into theaters. Could Vin Diesel and company find a way to start their own Avengers: Endgame with this reportedly first of two (or three?) “final” films in the series?


Fast X, for some of its continued flaws, marks a substantial step back for the series into the arenas where it found so much success in its “middle trilogy.” Where F9 went back to some basics by bringing in some long-lost family members to re-right the buoyancy of its themes, Fast X takes it the next step further. The combination that its fans come to expect is still here, whether it’s the laugh-inducing ridiculousness of its action or the rather dire seriousness that it speaks about family, and it manages to pull some significant heartstrings in the process while delivering its pedal-to-the-metal thrills. It still hits a few speed bumps in trying to juggle its massive ensemble and it makes a massive franchise choice that will leave some of its viewers disappointed with its finale, but it’s easy to call Fast X a pleasant return to form. 


As is the case with this globetrotting franchise, Fast X is stuffed to the brim with all kinds of shit - plotting, character, and retconning are all game for this one. And, to its detriment, there’s actually too much for this film. Our protagonists are faced with the “ultimate” enemy. Dante is looking for revenge on our delightful street racers turned international militaristic spies for killing his dad during their heist at the end of Fast Five. Dante almost immediately manages to split up our heroic ensemble by attempting to blow up the Vatican with a giant rolling bomb. 


As explosive (and rather elongated) as that setup might be for an initial action set piece for our spunky NOS-fueled team, it essentially scatters the team to all corners of the world. Instead of a chaos-addicted and maniacal laughing Dante, which has Jason Momoa scene eating as the Fast & Furious version of the Joker throughout, hunting down the team one by one, it splinters the narrative into essentially four different plots: Vin Diesel’s growly Dom is hunting Dante, Dante is hunting Dom’s son, Rodriguez’s Letty goes to prison with Theron’s Cipher, and the rest of the gang try to outrun the law by going to London. 


It’s…a lot. It might be the biggest obstacle for Fast X to overcome. Part of the reason that fans have come to love this series is watching its characters interact and by splitting them up, it inherently pulls itself away from that. It’s obvious by its ending - of which there really isn’t one because the film is left on a cliffhanger with none of its narrative threads or characters arcs (sans one) reaching a conclusion, that this is an attempt to start off a multi-film story. Which, to be fair, still irritates me to some degree as it goes to pull a “Go see Fast X Part Deux in two years” moment. Fast X is splitting up our heroes so we get that big Avengers Assemble moment in the next film (or two) for fans, but for this film, it does detract from its overall effectiveness as we watch only the first chunk. 


The splitting of characters does allow for the newbies to the series, including Daniela Melchior, Brie Larson, and Alan Ritchson, to play some pivotal moments in the film, but much of it is played as plot progression rather than anything of substantial merit to the character arcs or themes of the film. The former actress gets a silly familial connection to try and weave in more lore to the film but the latter two act as agents of “Not Real Government But Definitely Spy World Bullshit” The Agency and they definitely don’t get much time to grow beyond caricatures. Fortunately, as indicated above, they have one to two more films to grow so let’s hope it weaves a tighter thread as it goes. 


Fortunately, new to the series director Louis Leterrier manages to make so much of it feel more grounded than the last two entries, while still delivering those bigger-than-imagination action set pieces. The charm continues to ooze out of the film, whether it’s the family BBQ scene that kicks off the film with a nice cameo from Rita Moreno as Dom’s grandmother, or the way that John Cena’s Uncle Jake handily makes for the best kid-friendly companion as he attempts to outrun Dante and keep Dom’s son alive, Fast X still retains that charm factor that has carried this series for so long. There are plenty of jokes and levity to be had, but the balance is more in line with the highlights of the series rather than its doldrums, which is where its tone desperately needed to be. 


Also, as with so many of the newer entries, Fast X manages to be a film that feels like its non-stop action. For a film with that much plot and a half billion characters, it still packs in some seriously fun action set pieces. For the action connoisseurs out there, the series continues to rely far too much on CGI for its spectacle, continuing to lose its grip on reality that many of the earlier films were so successful at, but it is fun. Whether it’s the vehicular combat of Dom on the freeway before outrunning the biggest gas truck explosion of all time (I think I heard Michael Bay swoon a thousand miles away) or some of the hand-to-hand combat brought to the table by Jason Statham, John Cena, and a fantastic one-on-one battle between Rodriguez and Theron, there’s plenty of action to be had. 


Not all of the action feels all that necessary to the plot or character development though. The Save The Vatican Rome sequence feels extraordinarily drawn out, for example. Yet, it’s hard to be too nitpicky when it’s easy to see that the filmmakers and crew are having so much fun crafting the set pieces. 


With all of that - which is too much admittedly - and some interesting themes around generational hope and a slyly embedded religious layer that the film doesn’t explore nearly enough in interesting ways, Fast X is a strong start to the final runway of this series. Once again, despite some of its issues in its narrative cohesion or the amount of material they are jamming into its 142-minute runtime, this tenth mainline entry still has that fun and charming B-movie smirk to its demeanor that finds the heart that has rung a bit hollow in its most recent predecessors. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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