In the New York segment of The Fate of the Furious, the film’s big bad remotely takes control of a slew of autonomous cars and sends them zooming this way and that, all over the congested city streets. It’s then that we see, in this context, the three most beautiful words in the English language: COLLISION AVOIDANCE DISABLED. It sure is. That could be the tag line and the credo for this entire beefed-up franchise, which, after eating its Wheaties and spending many hours in the gym, has evolved into a series of 007-style blockbusters. Yes, this movie begins (in Cuba) with an old-school race that’s about the franchise’s two biggest concerns — cars and family — but after that, we’re into another plot about someone who wants to do something globally unspeakable, and only Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his loyal crew can put a stop to the shenanigans.
But wait: Dom switches sides this time out; he Turns His Back on His Family. The aforementioned big bad, an ice-queen terrorist who calls herself Cipher (Charlize Theron), has a very big bargaining chip, and she compels Dom to do her bidding. Cipher, who likes to spout sociopath-philosophical mumbo-jumbo about choice and accountability, wants a nuke to play with. So Dom’s crew, including special agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Dom’s surly but loyal significant other Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), swing into action to save not only the world but Dom. There’s a fleeting suggestion that Dom has indeed “gone rogue,” but that possibility is batted away by Letty as if it were a mosquito. Something’s wrong. This isn’t Dom. He would never Turn His Back on the Family.
Well, maybe he does or maybe he doesn’t; I won’t give away his true motivation, though there is one grudging new member of the team: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who has tasted his own blood at Hobbs’ hands (or feet). When Statham locks eyeballs with Dwayne Johnson in one of their several fight-or-get-a-room macho displays, the two men seem millimeters away from bursting out guffawing, and finally they actually do it. While most of the actual movies (including this one) don’t quite dazzle me, I’m fond of the idea of this series — it’s unfailingly diverse and inclusive, and every so often it even winks at its ironic, amused gay audience. The icing on this film’s welcome-to-the-family cake for gays is complete with the casting of an unbilled Helen Mirren in a cameo as the hard-boiled cockney mother of Shaw and his brother. Of course, there’s not enough of Mirren here, but then there never is, is there?
But we were talking about an action movie. Collision avoidance, as noted, is disabled. Explosions occur, and finally our heroes race a massive submarine chugging along under the ice. For all that, though — and some of the excessive deep-bass festivities did tickle regular chortles out of me — the series is in dire need of cool, and Vin Diesel can’t really provide it. (He’s a much more friendly and human presence as himself in interviews.) Coolness is left in the capable hands of Kurt Russell, who returns as the narrative’s super secret agent, Mr. Nobody. Various lunkheads marinating in testosterone growl at one another, and Russell, with an amiable chuckle, gives one or both of them a calming clap on the back. At this stage, Russell has amassed so many bad-ass points the mere sound of his voice can gentle meatheads two heads taller than he is.
Still, this series gets its power and popularity from its salud, mi familia shtick, which as far as I can make out is perfectly genuine. The soul of the movie is in the tormented looks the betrayed Letty shoots towards Dom, or the longing look Dom gives a vulnerable family member through bulletproof glass, or the wild-eyed devotion Hobbs gives to coaching his daughter’s soccer team, or the slyness with which Helen Mirren manipulates her tough-guy son into doing her bidding. As Dom might say, if you ain’t got family you ain’t got nothin’.