The Fate of the Furious (2017)

The premise of the eighth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise is that Vin Diesel’s long-time ringleader/paterfamilias Dominic Toretto (or, Daddy Dom, if you will) betrays his street racing brethren and turns his back on Family. Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the first seven installments of the series, God help you, you already know that Family is all that matters to the speed demon lug. He won’t shut up about it. That’s why the betrayal is so cold and so out of character. Worse yet, in this most recent episode the franchise itself turns its back in its own long-time partners, ice cold bottles of Corona. The film betrays over fifteen years of brand loyalty by nonchalantly switching the Fast Family’s beer preference to Bud heavies as if we wouldn’t notice. It also brings back an old villain, played by Jason Statham, who is responsible for the deaths of past Family members as a Good Guy who’s just welcomed to the team with mostly open arms, few questions asked. The Fate of the Furious also breaks format by featuring a couple brutal, non-driving related deaths (including a propeller-aided one that even involves a touch of blood splatter) and by shifting focus from Familial drama to bombastic comedy, where jokes are given far more breathing room than the overstuffed dramatic beats. It’s not just Dom that turns his back on long-established alliances and moral codes in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s contribution to the series also betrays everything that’s come before it in terms of narrative and tone. In a way, though, that kind of blasphemy is perfectly at home with the spirit of the series.

The Fast and the Furious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. The first four films in the franchise in particular are a total mess, continuity-wise. It wasn’t until Fast Five that it even found its voice: Vin Diesel endlessly mumbling about Family. The series may be Fast and Amnesious with its various narrative threads on the whole, but Dominic Toretto had always been there to keep the Family together, even in the franchise’s furthest outlier, the under-appreciated Tokyo Drift. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly. At the starting line of The Fate of the Furious, Dominic Toretto is a Christ-like figure, a Man of the People, a Hero to Children Everywhere. He takes a quick break from his honeymoon in Havana with series regular Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to shame a predatory loan shark in front of the very people he bullies by beating him in an old-fashioned street race while driving backwards & on fire. Every last person in Cuba cheers and we’re all quickly reminded exactly why Daddy Dom is the Greatest Man Alive. This street racing reverie is disrupted by a late 90s holdover Super Hacker played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s newbie baddy preys on Dom’s infamous devotion to Family and mysteriously blackmails him into “going rogue,” stealing EMP devices & “nuclear footballs” to support her Evil Hacker cause. This betrayal of what is Right and Just leads to a global car chase where Dom’s long list of Family members (Rodriguez, The Rock, Ludacris, apparently Statham, etc.) try to steal him away from Theron, who pushes Dom to “abandon his code” and “shatter his Family.” It’s all very silly, but it’s also a welcome departure from the typical Fast & Furious dynamic.

Of course, The Fate of the Furious was never going to survive on its tonal consistency or the strength of its plot. What really matters here is the action movie spectacle. F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. The Rock is a real life superhero, particularly shining in a music video-esque prison riot sequence where he manually destroys an entire building full of lowlifes (including local pro wrestler Luke Hawx, who also briefly appeared in Logan earlier this year). At one point, Charlize Theron’s Ultimate Hacker gives the ridiculous command “Hack ’em all,” and remotely takes control of virtually every vehicle in NYC, giving rise to literal floods & waterfalls made of cars. Vin Diesel rocks a heavy metal welding mask & oversized chainsaw combo that makes him look like the villain from a dystopian slasher. Even more ridiculously, the Fast Family is asked to race and battle a nuclear-armed submarine that attacks them from under the Russian ice they drive flimsy sports cars across. And (mild spoilers, I guess) they win! As far as The Fate of the Furious might stray from past tonal choices and character traits, it ultimately sticks to he core of the only thing that has remained consistent in the series (now that Dom’s had his opportunity to Go Rogue): there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

Besides the narrative ways in which The Fate of the Furious breaks format, the film also marks a shift where the franchise functions as an outright, intentional comedy. F. Gary Gray openly shows his roots in the Friday series with the way humor overtakes Family drama in this entry. Vin Diesel starts off the film with the same “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging he used to anchor xXx: Return of Xander Cage earlier this year. Ludacris’s nerd archetype is in constant verbal sparring with Tyrese Gibson’s womanizing ham. Dick jokes, Taylor Swift references, and meta humor about The Rock’s past life as Hercules all seem to be afforded more heft than the mood-killing dramatic beats, which breeze by no matter how shocking or tragic. The series also seems to have moved on from stunt casting rappers to enlisting well-respected actors for over-the-top cameos, this time none other than Helen Mirren. Despite rumors about an on-set rivalry between Vin Diesel & The Rock and a few drastic shakeups to the franchise’s central Family dynamic, F. Gary Gray manages to keep the mood in The Fate of the Furious just about as light as its explosions are frequent & loud.

If I have any complaints about this most recent entry to the series, it’s that it wasn’t quite blasphemous enough. The Fast & Furious franchise is overdue for another Tokyo Drift-style shakeup that completely disrupts the rules of its universe. Why not take this carnival to space? Why not have the Family get caught up in A Race Through Time? Why not have them travel to Hell and win back the life of a fallen member by beating The Devil Himself in a street race? If the series continues down its current path, I have no doubt it’ll remain a fun, absurd source of racing-themed entertainment. There’s just so much potential for it to jump a new shark in every franchise entry, though, (including literally jumping sharks!) and I think it’s more than ready to both make the leap and stick the landing.

-Brandon Ledet

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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I was at first a little overwhelmed by the idea of a N.W.A biopic stretching out for a 147min runtime, but as I was watching Straight Outta Compton in the theater its length gradually began to make total sense. It’s an incredibly thorough biopic, digging not only into the cultural & political climate surrounding the group’s origins, but also the aftermath of their falling out & disbanding. Even at 2.5 hours, not everything was covered & large swaths of historical accuracy were tossed aside in favor of a tight narrative & an indulgence in a killer 90’s aural & temporal vibe. Straight Outta Compton is not a particularly great example of a historical document, but damn if it didn’t achieve an incredible Cinematic Aesthetic in every scene, somehow managing to squeeze out a great biopic with exactly zero deviations from the format (unlike more experimental films like Love & Mercy). The cinematography, provided by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, confidently supported the film’s surface pleasures (including an onslaught of still-great songs & pandering nostalgia) to the point where any & all faults were essentially irrelevant. When a sample wraps up the music video portion of the end credits by proclaiming “Damn, that shit was dope!” (the very same sample that concludes the song the film’s named after) it was difficult to disagree.

Because stories ultimately belong to those still around to tell them, the film’s narrative is undoubtedly bent towards the stories of Ice Cube & Dr. Dre, who are both credited as producers here. In a lot of ways they use the film as a sort of redemption piece, reshaping their personal history to include a reconciliation with departed group member Eazy-E, who lost his life to HIV-related health complications at a young age. The real-life tale as long as I’ve known it has been that the group never truly resolved their very public feuds (a deeply ugly mess of shoddy contracts, legal disputes, and diss tracks) while Eazy was still alive. The movie version cleans that mess up in an unbelievably tidy way perhaps more fit for the likes of a made-for-TV TLC biopic, but that tendency towards a clear A-B narrative feels entirely intentional. There’s a scene late in the film where Cube confronts Eazy for calling out his acting debut Boyz n the Hood for being “an afterschool special” & Eazy responds “I like afterschool specials.” The simple, clean redemption story Straight Outta Compton tells doesn’t feel at all far from that sentiment.

So according to this romanticized, cleaned-up folklore, Dre was the group’s seminal producer, Cube was responsible for its best writing, and Eazy held down the majority of the raw talent, street cred, and business acumen. Folks like MC Ren, DJ Yella, and The D.O.C. are not only sidelined, but sometimes they’re even downplayed as lesser talents to make the film’s holy gangsta rap trinity shine all the brighter. Yella, for instance, shoulders most of the blame for Dre’s involvement in the Prince-influenced, sexually ambiguous funk days of the Worldclass Wreckin’ Cru & other club gigs that required him to wear sequins & play mindless party records. Ren gets the real short end of the stick here, though, verbally thrown under the bus as an inferior lyricist that couldn’t hold down the crew after Ice Cube’s departure. As a fan of the group’s entire output (and Ren’s solo records for that matter), these claims sting a little, but just as the fudging of the Eazy redemption story makes for a clearer narrative, dissing Ren in the script does actually make sense story-wise (even if it’s a shame that he only raps a total of three verses in the entire film to make more room for Cube, Dre, and Eazy).

If the film didn’t capture the entirety of the group members individual nuances, it at least got the imagery down. Actors Corey Hawkins & O’Shea Jackson, Jr. look & sound incredibly similar to the roles they’re playing (Dre & Cube, respectively), with Jackson having the distinct advantage (and possible awkwardness) of portraying his own father. New Orleans native Jason Mitchell pulls the hat trick of not only looking & sounding like Eazy-E, but also outshining his fellow cast members as a damn good actor, bringing to life what turns out to be one of the group’s more interesting & complicated characters. R. Marcos Taylor & speaking of Love & Mercy, Paul Giamatti (playing infamous record industry tyrants Suge Knight & Jerry Heller) aren’t nearly as visually accurate in their roles as the film’s villains, but they do provide an all-too-believable menace to their scenes that allow them to get by more as archetypes than carbon copies. The only actor who looks jarringly out of place here is a brief appearance by an absurdly inaccurate Snoop Dogg, but that’s more than made up by the likeness of the rest of the cast, an appearance from a Tupac lookalike so accurate he could’ve been a hologram, and clips of the “Straight Outta Compton” music video shown at the end credits to remind you just how detailed the film’s attention to visual preciseness was.

Visual & historical accuracy aside, director F. Gary Gray should get a lot of credit here for creating a wildly entertaining biopic with exactly zero deviations from the genre’s format. This is a movie that somehow makes room to capture our current cultural 90s fetishization, ludicrously timely reflections on race-based police brutality that are sadly just as potent now as they were in the days of Rodney King, and an extended gag that calls back to the infamous “Bye, Felicia” line in Gray’s debut film (and original collaboration with Ice Cube) Friday. Instead of calling into question N.W.A’s more unsavory attributes, namely their misogyny & homophobia, Gray just lets them play themselves out. Misogyny is on display in hedonistic, music video style pool & hotel parties where women are treated like party favors (sometimes literally tossed around like objects) & homophobic rants are allowed to be voiced in Ice Cube’s infamous diss tracks & Eazy’s reaction to his HIV diagnosis. Straight Outta Compton makes no moral judgements about its subjects, but rather just more or less portrays them as they were.

There’s some glorification inherent to the biopic format here & a lot of ground was breezily glossed over (including contributions from names like Vanilla Ice, Bone Thugs, Above the Law, and J.J. Fad), but it’s unwise to nitpick too many of Gray’s decisions here, since the final product is so enjoyable & packed-to-the-gills as is. It’s not only successful as an aurally & visually beautiful slice of N.W.A fan service, but it’s also a great primer for younger folks who mostly know Ice Cube as an actor & Dre as Eminem’s buddy who peddles expensive headphones. Even as a longtime fan, I learned a thing or two along the way (most excitingly that Eazy-E once dined with President George H. W. Bush). Gray competently captures the social & political climates that gave birth to his infamous subject as well as the context of their dissolution’s aftermath (even if he intentionally fuzzes up the details in-between), but the story he tells in Straight Outta Compton is mostly remarkable in how fun & rewatchable it is without at all straying from its biopic format. He used an already well-established narrative structure as a bottle to capture the lighting that was what the made the group so special & their songs so endlessly listenable to this day. That’s no small feat & the final product ended up being one of my favorite trips to the theater all year.

-Brandon Ledet