Film Review – Fast X
***Warning: This review contains minor spoilers***
It goes without saying, but the Fast & Furious franchise has had several makeovers in its near two-decade existence. What started out as a gang of street racers boosting DVD players out of semitrucks has turned into a globe-hopping adventure involving spies, elaborate heists, and ridiculous action. At one point, characters even found themselves driving their suped up cars in space! Yet somehow, someway, the outlandish stunt work kept the series alive. Filmmakers understood that keeping things earnest – such as the affection the characters have for one another – is what brought audiences back. Sure, we love good chase scenes and lots of explosions. In the end, though, what we remember most are the friends and family we made along the way, as cliché as that may sound.
Which is what makes Fast X (2023) such a head scratching disappointment. This is one of the rare occasions where the earnestness and joy that defined the franchise has been drained away. In its place is a cynicism born out of financial motivation. The bottom dollar has always been an important component (these are blockbuster movies, after all), but in this instance we can sense the algorithm machine churning away. This has been built as a product of marketing. Some of the worst superhero films act merely as an advertisement for “the next big thing.” That is exactly what is happening in this entry. Instead of telling an enclosed, complete story, the production made this simply a steppingstone. It promises action, suspense, and intrigue, and instead says, “Syke! You’ll have to pony up more money to find out where this all leads!”
A film being used as a set up isn’t necessarily a bad thing (see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) as a prime example). The problem is that Fast X is not very fun or interesting. Louis Leterrier takes over directing duties after longtime stalwart Justin Lin left over creative differences. That change is badly felt. Leterrier does not have the same eye for action as Lin, relying on poorly rendered CGI that results in a rubbery, uncanny valley phoniness. In one scene, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) drives his car through a fiery explosion. Leterrier’s direction shifts the moment into extreme slow motion, as computer-generated imagery renders a fake looking closeup of Diesel with flames shooting into his window. At no point does any of this look believable. We don’t need actors to put themselves in harm’s way, but the special effects need to give some sense of realism to make us buy into the stakes. That never happens here.
Even worse, the writing (Lin, Dan Mazeau) structures the narrative into a sprawling mess. It goes so far as to retcon fan favorite moments, stripping away their dramatic and emotional impact. An early scene takes us back to the memorable vault chase of Fast Five (2011), rearranging events involving the central antagonist of that film, Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). We come to learn that Reyes had a son, Dante (Jason Momoa) who was there to witness what Toretto and his crew did to his father. Now, Dante has emerged to take his vengeance. The meat of the story is the faceoff between Dante and Dom, which ultimately becomes a standoff between Diesel and Momoa’s performances. They operate on completely two different planes of acting. Diesel comes in with a low-key performance, delivering lines barely above a whisper. At one point, it appears as though he was speaking with his eyes closed. On the other hand, Momoa hams it up as the baddie, going as flamboyant and over the top as he possibly can. Dante cracks jokes and mugs for the camera as though he were tossing everything on the wall and seeing what sticks.
With Dom and Dante dominating the main narrative arc, all the remaining players are left on the sideline. The casting is overly stuffed with new and returning faces, and none of them have very much to do. This becomes more apparent when the main team is split, all going in different directions in hopes of getting back together before Dante completes his master plan. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Mia (Jordana Brewster), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Han (Sung Kang) all just sit around waiting for their turn to be called. The same can be said for Cipher (Charlize Theron) and Shaw (Jason Statham), who were once significant but are now third tier supporting characters. Jakob (John Cena) should be more involved given his relationship with Dom, but he’s forced into a half-baked road trip story babysitting his nephew, Little Brian (Leo Abelo Perry). With such a crowded arena, the introduction of new characters – such as the ones played by Rita Moreno and Brie Larson – feel like nothing more than glorified cameos.
Those looking for absurd action set pieces will certainly get it, and to be fair, some of it still works. There are instances where the good old magic shows back up, mostly during the more grounded set pieces. Stephen F. Windon’s cinematography uses heavy drone shots, allowing the camera to zoom from high to low angles, whipping the frame back and forth as cars race by. However, the splashier moments feel like repurposed takes from previous films. This is one of the more self-aware entries, using several visual references to the past. When Dom and Dante enter a late-night street race, we can’t help but remember similar (and better executed) scenes from earlier in the franchise. When Dom hits the NOS button, and we see flames spin around his engine giving his car added velocity, we’re brought back to the original The Fast and the Furious (2001). A lot of this is understandable given the rumors of the franchise finally ending (this is apparently the first of a trilogy meant to wrap things up). However, there is no sense of revelation, no sense of surprise or burst of creative energy. Instead of seeing something new and exciting, we’re served yesterday’s leftovers.
There was a point where the Fast & Furious series got better with each sequel. Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6 (2013), and Furious 7 (2015) seemed to defy the rules in what big budget franchises can get away with. However, since then the returns have been diminishing, with Fast X hitting a new low. Hopefully, those in charge with bringing this behemoth to a close will get things back on track sooner rather than later.