Every race needs a finish line. For the “Fast & Furious” franchise, the studio keeps shoving it farther down the road, at least according to Vin Diesel, who suggested at the world premiere of the 10th installment — a brainless but action-packed thrill ride billed as “Fast X” — that Universal might split the “finale” over three movies. Why not seven? Or 20 more, for that matter? That might allow Diesel to merge these increasingly desperate sequels with his other running-on-fumes franchise, “XXX.”
The producer-star has a way of mouthing off around the release of each new “Fast” movie (remember hints that an all-female spinoff might be coming?), which feels counterproductive, considering that a key part of Diesel’s appeal comes from the rumbling-Harley-voiced actor’s capacity to reduce complex thoughts to terse catchphrases. He’ll squint his eyes, crack that sideways smile and spout something inane (“I don’t have friends, I got family”), and it will sound profound. Gearhead philosophy, or “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” served up with popcorn.
But two more movies to finish off this franchise? That’s too much. It’s bad enough that “Fast X” is half a story: an elaborate reunion of all the A-list characters the previous nine movies introduced (yes, all of them), that starts-and-stalls its way toward a cliffhanger. The villain this time is Jason Momoa’s diabolical Dante, a flamboyant new character whom the best-to-ignore script retcons into series peak “Fast Five,” introducing him as the son of Brazilian crime lord Hernan Reyes, driven by vengeance to make Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew “suffer.”
“There’s a war coming. Sides are being chosen, and everyone you love will be destroyed,” warns Charlize Theron’s super-hacker Cipher, who was also a villain last time we checked. But “the enemy of my enemy” and all that. I told you to ignore the script. The filmmakers did, to the point that “X” marks the spot where the property’s most dependable director, Justin Lin, called it quits. You may be tempted to do the same. Then again, if you’ve made it this far, you may as well hold on till “F11” or “FasTwelve.”
Lin, who helmed five of the previous films, cooked up a clever way to tie a series that had gone off the rails back to its agreed-upon high point — back before it started resurrecting characters and pulling Looney Tunes stunts (“F9” found our heroes rocketing a red Fiero into space). Then he hit a wall. Enter Louis Leterrier, the French director of the relatively efficient “Transporter” movies, whose also made his share of gonzo effects epics, like “Clash of the Titans.”
Leterrier’s bad with story but reasonably strong on the action front. Characters are constantly jumping in and out of speeding vehicles in these movies, and Leterrier’s job here must have felt somewhat similar, clambering aboard the juggernaut that is the “Fast” franchise in full steam. Fans may forgive the giant leaps of logic, the way pointless scenes (like Pete Davidson’s cameo) devolve into fistfights for no good reason, since such conflict keeps things exciting.
Most of the time, it’s hard to follow why Dom and company are doing what they’re doing, apart from the obvious point that they’re trying not to repeat themselves — which is ironic, since the movie opens with a six-minute rehash of the “Fast Five” climax, with Momoa inserted into the action. He gets blasted off that bridge in Rio, dies for a few seconds and then dedicates the next decade (off-screen) to studying Dom’s every move.
Dante is one of those characters who knows way more about the franchise than you do (Marvel is full of them), making casual viewers feel like they should have done their homework before watching a movie that otherwise asks them to park their brains at the door. Between his Prince-meets-Tiger King wardrobe and the theatrical way he treats mass destruction like a Siegfried and Roy show, Dante’s a weirdly ambiguous character — a curious case of queerbaiting (or just a bad actor’s attempt to make an impression) that coexists alongside the series’ clearly hetero appetites. As always, “Fast X” features extended montages of unnamed and often faceless women in booty shorts twerking before each street race.
Daniela Melchior plays Isabel, one of two new female characters who actually get a name. As Agency operative Tess, Brie Larson is the other. Both are related to friends of Dom’s from previous movies — which makes them “family,” too, by his logic. The trouble with having such an extended circle (apart from it being tricky to give them all things to do, with some, like Helen Mirren, showing up for just one or two scenes) is that it makes Dom super vulnerable to the kind of “suffering” Dante intends.
First, he unleashes a sloppily rendered, giant rolling neutron bomb on the streets of Rome, nearly blowing up the Vatican. There are explosive scenes in Brazil, Portugal, Los Angeles and Antarctica, all of which seem to be a five-minute commute from one another. While Dom spends much of the movie trying to protect his 8-year-old son (Leo Abelo Perry), a whole bunch of beloved long-timers wind up “dying,” although these movies have shown such a flexible understanding of mortality (not to mention physics and plausibility) that it doesn’t make sense to mourn them just yet.
Two stars you’d probably counted out make cameos in end-credits sequences — right after Dom does his big Hoover Dam stunt, easily the film’s wildest set-piece — suggesting what the next two (or 20) “Fast” movies have in store. By now, this franchise is a well-oiled money machine, something between a feature-length car commercial (you’re gonna want to buy that electric DeLorean prototype) and a “don’t try this at home” public safety announcement. Still, calling it the first part of a finale feels like little more than a marketing gimmick. While Hollywood’s highest-octane franchise shows no signs of slowing, it was crazy reckless to give the green light to such a clunker.