Back sometime in the early '90s, I had occasion to go with a buddy of mine to Vegas. He was there for a lawyer conference, I was there, ostensibly, to do some book research for a novel I was working on. Neither one of us had been before, so it was kind of a lark -- at least at first.
I'm not a gambler, by nature or practice, so the casinos, with their visual overload, and constant money jangling, didn't do much for me. But I appreciated the weird neo-reality vibe of the place, the way in which time seemed unbound by our petty societal mores. It was always casino-o-clock there, and night had been permanently banished from the Strip -- along with taste, it must be said -- in favor of endless day, where you could spend every waking second losing more money to the greed-soaked corporations who were busy exploiting your human frailties for massive profit.
It was an interesting sociological experiment for about 24 hours. After that, even while drinking copiously, it became a grinding slog, as if spending days and nights locked inside a Fuddruckers. After a time, it came to me that Vegas was what happened when you removed the soul from a place entirely, and, to make up for it, spent enormous gobs of money to replace it. Everything felt flimsy and weightless, like the veritable front-facade buildings in old-timey Western pictures, only with a lot more neon attached to them.
Which brings us to the latest installment of the now 22-year-old "Fast" franchise specializing in macho bohunky posturing, "wild" CGI "stunts" that are so ridiculous Wile E. Coyote would roll his eyes, and the total destruction of a plethora of shiny supercars in the process. The series, which started out as a basic cop-and-villain action thriller, has come to the point where no one buys a ticket because they actually care about the characters (has there ever been an extended franchise run with the same actors in which so little character work has been accomplished? We're 10 films in now, and the camaraderie is about at the level of a standard episode of "Super Friends"), or even the plots themselves (there are always villains -- big, angry, rich -- who have a bone to pick with Dominic Torreta, and his crew, and send giant mechanical octopus cars, and motorcycles with teeth, after them).
No, they come, like the denizens of Vegas, for the thrill of rule breaking -- be those rules societal, with everyone breaking laws without regard for anything else; or physical, in which cars can go careening down the walls of a Hoover dam-like structure and emerge more or less intact -- and the creativity of said destruction.
MAXIMUM BOOM BOOM
With that in mind, this latest film, helmed by veteran French action director Louis Leterrier, mostly knows what the "Fast" audience is expecting: a minimum amount of complexity, and a maximum amount of boom boom, set at a teeth rattling pace, jacked by a thousand hot music cuts, and filled with broad-shouldered dudes with massive biceps, and tough-as-nails women who can take a punch as well as any heavyweight.
The first of a reported closing trilogy of films designed to give Dom (Vin Diesel), and his endless "famiglia" the longest goodbye imaginable, this installment opens with everyone at the L.A. compound in more or less in happy repose. Dom is giving his young son, Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) "driving" lessons (involving looping, squealing-tire doughnuts around a deserted parking lot); his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is home with Dom's Ma (Rita Moreno), and the rest of the crew, Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), along with various other family members.
The series has long been besotted with the idea of family, to the point where it becomes a kind of one-note rubric for Dom, who goes on and on about the importance of family and how much you have to sacrifice in order to protect those whom you love (that is, when he's not spouting mumbling, dunderheaded junk poetry like "She loved with her eyes, and bled from her heart"). As the closest thing the series offers in the way of thematics, I guess it might as well figure prominently enough, but Dom -- and the film -- are so relentless with the notion of whatever family means, it all begins to feel like so much sentimentalist drivel, a colorfully patterned carpet designed to distract you from all the people losing money at the slot machines.
Besides, I'm not aware of any family that seems as blandly positive and lovingly reciprocal as Dom and his extended crew, including his younger sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and kick-butt bro, Jakob (John Cena). Everyone is so interconnected in these movies -- along with the idea that people in families win, while individuals always lose (they must not be watching the same mob movies as I) -- it begins to feel as if you can't possibly stand on your own and expect to survive.
Family, of course, becomes more difficult to maintain if, say, your father happens to be a corrupt drug-running mastermind named Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), who gets killed by Dom and his crew (way back in "Fast Five") after they steal a vault of his precious money. As told in ret-con flashback, this killing leaves his wild-eyed son, Dante (Jason Momoa), to plan his ultimate revenge on Dom: Not just killing him, but making him suffer greatly along the way. And we're off!
This entails many plot-dense bits, with Dante tricking a squad of Dom's people to embark on a mission in Rome, that goes wildly off the rails, with a giant, metal, zorb-like bomb hurtling down the streets of the city, bringing chaos and destruction in its wake, and in the aftermath, getting pinned on Dom and his team. This, in turn, causes immediate disassociation from the Agency, the ultra-secret government organization that is definitely not the CIA, now led by yet another bruising hotshot, this one named Aimes (Alan Ritchson), who wants to finally bring Dom in and make him pay for his crimes. This comes against the wishes of another high-ranking Agency operative, Tess (Brie Larson), whose father, Mr. Nobody, used to be their main person of color before disappearing.
Given Dante's need for revenge, his limitless wealth, and his unhinged personality -- Momoa plays him like a muscled-up Joker-esque agent of chaos, with a macabre sense of humor (painting the toenails of henchmen he has murdered), an affinity for loose, pastel silk pants, and a love for standing high up above his adversaries and raining mayhem down upon them while pirouetting -- we have another worthy adversary for Mr. Torreta, even as previous series villains, such as Shaw (Jason Statham), and Cipher (Charlize Theron), pop in here and there to help Dom's crew (as is often the case in this franchise, one film's big bad becomes the next film's unexpected benefactor) when needed.
ONE CREDIBLE SCENE
To the film's wobbly credit, it does at least include a scene where Aimes calls out some of the franchise's more ludicrous conceits (Everyone is in the family! All the supercars have to be demolished!), to at least tacitly acknowledge we aren't actually emulating reality in these affairs, but then the film just as gleefully sets up a dramatic scene near the end where a father's actual plan to rescue his son involves, shall we say, a tremendous, er, leap of logic that goes beyond "unlikely" and fully into "recklessly negligent."
We end with a cliffhanger, of course, although it's anyone's guess as to how the filmmakers are going to string together enough story to cobble two more such installments. To be sure, however, as with giant new casinos, and multi-billion-dollar summer franchise blockbusters, where there is copious amounts of cash involved, there is always a way.
78 Cast: Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Leo Abelo Perry, Ludacris, John Cena, Jason Statham, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Jason Momoa, Brie Larson, Charlize Theron, Michael Rooker, Alan Ritchson, Scott Eastwood
Director: Louis Leterrier
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes