movie review

Fast X Feels Like a Head Injury

I didn’t hate it! Photo: Universal Pictures

The Fast & Furious franchise has been about many things since it started as a comparatively modest street-racing thriller back in 2001. It’s been about cars, obviously: cars that go fast and drift around corners and, in later movies, prove themselves capable of launching into orbit and tenderly catching people on their hoods as though cradling them in cushioned catcher’s mitts. It’s about family, in both the biological and the found sense, with the latter slowly sucking in so many past antagonists that the movies occasionally take a beat to acknowledge who has previously tried to kill whom. It’s about the lingering allure of Hollywood bombast, and about the successful exporting of the kind multiethnic ensemble that same Hollywood used to insist the rest of the world didn’t want, and about gyrating butts in close-up. But now that the Fast & Furiouses are firmly in their dotage — Fast X is more self-referential remix project than film, an idiot 2046 for a series out of new roads to zoom down — what they’re especially about is the state of stardom. No actor seems able to escape the gravitational pull of these movies, and it doesn’t feel like a spoiler to note that some well-known ones make unannounced appearances in this latest installment.

Between all the returning cast members and the new ones, Fast X is deliriously unwieldy. It’s barely able to attend to all the big names involved — like, who needed Brie Larson to be in this and why? — and the way it hoards them turns the movie into an unintended treatise on how much power has tipped from stars to brands. The celebrities need this aging blockbuster saga more than it needs them, and the ones who try to leave come crawling back eventually, with their characters’ deaths or departures retroactively explained away. Vin Diesel himself took off after The Fast and the Furious, which alongside Pitch Black helped vault him into prominence. But by 2009, after The Chronicles of Riddick flopped and he’d starred in a fish-out-of-water babysitting comedy, he wasn’t just back in the role of Dominic Toretto, he’d been promoted to producer as well. If you can’t leave the series, you may as well become it, and Diesel’s fused himself to this IP so thoroughly that, mid-production on Fast X, he managed to chase away director Justin Lin, who alongside writer Chris Morgan was one of the franchise’s main architects (Lin retains a screenplay credit). The Transporter’s Louis Leterrier took over, though the film plays more like it was made by an AI versed in the existing movies but not quite up to spitting out something coherent itself.

It is, despite all this, a decent diversion, though watching it feels like sustaining a head injury. Not far into the run time, a bloody Charlize Theron shows up at the Toretto house (remember how Charlize Theron is in these now?) as yet another villain looking to turn ally. “There’s a war coming. Sides will be chosen and everyone you love will be destroyed,” she gasps out; these are basically evergreen words for this franchise that would have fit into at least four past films. Theron’s cyberterrorist Cipher has had a run-in with ascendant baddie Dante Reyes (Jason Momoa), who in classic fashion has been retconned into the series as the son of Hernan Reyes, the Rio de Janeiro drug lord played by Joaquim de Almeida in Fast Five. Momoa does not attempt a Brazilian accent, but he is — how to put this — doing something like a femme affectation? Dante wears flamboyant outfits, paints his dead victims’ toenails, and trills “Buongiorno!” while tumbling a neutron bomb through the streets of Rome like a giant pinball. He jokes about looking to tone down the masculinity and is vaguely reminiscent of the gender-dissident revolutionary played by Silvero Pereira in Bacurau, though that’s surely overthinking things. Mostly, Momoa is going big, though given how outsize Fast X is, it just ends up registering on the same scale as everything else. I didn’t hate it!

Fast X finds the family getting framed by Dante and trying to find him while being pursued by the Agency (formerly headed by Kurt Russell, the only actor in the world not in this movie), the secret organization Dom & Co. have done jobs for in the past. The characters get split up and clumped into their own subgenres — Nathalie Emmanuel, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, and Ludacris are doing light comedy, while Michelle Rodriguez and Theron are in a gritty escape flick, John Cena and Leo Abelo Perry (playing Dom’s son) embark on a buddy road-trip movie, and Larson is in a girlboss spy drama alongside Reacher’s Alan Ritchson as new Agency boss Aimes. Flipping between all these tones is disorienting, but the movie settles down whenever Diesel is onscreen, mostly because Diesel is acting harder than anyone has ever acted in their life, and also because the movie is for him. Every line he delivers feels engineered to be clipped and used without context for promotional purposes. Shots linger for a beat too long on his face, which has begun accruing the vague unreality of a CGI creation. When he, say, jerks his head around at an unexpected sound, it’s so dramatic it can startle a laugh out of you. Fast X may treat movie stars like they’re a dime a dozen, but it’s an altar for its lead, lifting him up like a minor deity fallen to earth. The series may be running on fumes, but as it coasts toward what’s promised to be its final episode, you can at least count on it doing everything it can to make Diesel look larger than life and sound twice as gravelly.

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Fast X Feels Like a Head Injury