The opening of Fast X follows a proud tradition in the Fast and Furious franchise: recontextualizing a previous scene with previously unknown information. This time, we return to the final moments of series highlight Fast Five, with it’s chilling bank vault heist through the streets of Rio. But now we see that film’s villain, cold and calculated Hernan Reyes, has a hitherto unknown son Dante (Jason Mamoa), one who he is attempting to pass along his criminal empire to. This transition is interrupted by the exhilarating final act, where Hernan is defeated and killed, and Dante is nearly killed.
That “nearly” does a lot of work there, as now ten years later, Dante arises from the ashes, looking like he hasn’t aged a day and ready to reap revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his vehicularly obsessed family of thieves-turned-crimefighters. Of course, that turnover all happened after Fast Five, which for all of its perfectly executed action is mostly a heist movie, where the good thieves take from the bad mob. Since then, Dom and his crew have become superspies, with an ever increasing cast of characters and gosh-wow supertech at their disposal. And they’ve even already battled another family member looking to avenge their family for perceived injustices.
If this seems like a lot to unpack, welcome to the current state of being Fast and/or Furious fan. Plenty have pointed out how the series, which started as “Point Break but with cars” and spun into…well, something else. Namely, it is Universal’s primary action franchise, an increasingly unhinged series of impossible car chases, impossible coincidences, and ever increasing set pieces. With promises that the series is racing towards it grand finale, the promise going into Fast X is that it will drift towards the end of the road, providing a satisfying and explosive finale.
In reality, the newest entry is the first time that the series has felt lost, running on fumes of past glories and never really having an identity to call its own. Even lesser entries before have had a sense of identity to them, and didn’t feel like either rehashes or, worse yet, chasing trends rather than establishing its own obtuse identity. For a series that has always taken unpredictable twists in terms of world building, Fast X is the first outing where they are retreading old ground, and openly showing an eye towards “franchise” work. The runaway freight train has become self aware, and there’s no turning back now.
It hasn’t been easy to get to this point however. Long time series director Justin Lin was originally assigned to helm this outing, but after citing creative difficulties stepping into producing and writing credit. He was replaced by Louis Leterrier, a director who is mostly noteworthy for flexibility to meet the demands of a project rather than a distinct style his own. The effect is a film that feels somewhat anonymous, save for some disorienting quick-cut action that hearkens back to Leterrier’s Eurocore action background. The most frustrating part is that Leterrier hired the same drone cinematography crew that helped created the breathtaking kinetic sweeps of Michael Bay’s latest, Ambulance, but cuts away from these drone footage too quickly to ever fully appreciate how groundbreaking their work is.
Perhaps the biggest departure for the film is Momoa, who is clearly going for a bigger and more boisterous villain than the film has ever had before. The Fast series has never really had a villain that matched the charisma of its heroes, mostly coming across as fairly anonymous in the face of the circumstances, essentially establishing obstacles and allowing the stars to smash through them. Momoa breaks that trajectory by going in the exact opposite direction, providing a performance overloaded with gestures and histrionics. In theory, this should be an exciting development, as the last attempt to create an overarching mega-villain for the franchise, Charlize Theron’s ill-defined cyber-terrorist Cypher, has been something of a wet blanket on the series since she first appeared two installments ago.
The end result however throws the whole film off balance. Momoa is clearly having fun being the preening, prancing bad guy, feeling like he stepped out of one of the Schumacher Batman films. But his energy is never matched by anyone else involved; the juxtaposition between his manic, campy preening and the stern silliness the rest of the franchise is defined by creates a constant tonal whiplash the film never quite gets a handle on.
Which is a shame, because there is plenty to like in the film. The action set pieces are just as kinetic and creative as usual, though they often feel like rehashes of previous installments. The film is centered around re-evaluating the events of Fast Five, which has the knock-on effect of reminding you of a better version of this formula, but also activating a certain dopamine recognition of how this machine hums. Most of the returning cast is game for what’s ask of them, especially Michelle Rodriguez and the comedy-relief team of Chris Bridges and Tyrese Gibson. At this point, their fast personas feel like reflexes, and they can slip into them just like a favorite beaten-in pair of sneakers. And Nathalie Emanuel and especially Sung Kang bring their brand of laid back, casual cool. Even Charlize Theron’s Cypher, who shows up as a reluctant partner to the Family when Dante dismantles her terrorist network, seems more in alignment with the series vibe finally.
The newcomers to the outing fair more unevenly. Perhaps the best of the lot is Alan Ritchson as Aimes, the bulking new head of the secretive “Agency”, the ill-defined spy organization the Family has worked for since Fast and Furious Six. Unlike his predecessor Mr. Nobody, Aimes doesn’t see the Family as an asset so much as a liability, and attempts to use the muscle of the Agency to bring them in. This casts him in the Luke Hobbs role to follow the Fast Five parallel, and while it’s not quite the star-making performance Dwayne Johnson found in that role, he is an able foil that utilizes his massive size effectively. Likewise Daniela Melchior fits into the familiar position of new potential Family member, as a Brazilian street racer with a connection to the events of Five herself. She is fine, if uninspiring.
And then there is Brie Larson, the daughter of Mr. Nobody who is internally trying to undermine Aimes’ authority. Larson is clearly game for this kind of thing, having done the huge ensemble action business over in the MCU. Here, Larson struggles to find her footing, and not just because of her character’s trademark studded shoes. Rather, she spits off dialogue with a stiltedness that suggests she was being rewritten on the fly. Which, given the behind the scene drama this series seems to generate, is likely true.
The end result is something that the Fast franchise has always avoided before: it comes across as both safe and familiar. For a series built on escalation and growth, built on the back of unexpected diversions, this is the first time that the series has felt like a retread, both metaphorically and literally returning to previous stomping grounds to craft a story that establishes the stakes for the final leg of the race by returning to some greatest hits. Without getting into spoilers, the film ends on an equally shocking and unconvincing cliffhanger, clearly an incomplete promise of more high octane action to come. But to get to the finish line, at least in a way that will honor all the oddity and heartfelt passionate that has gotten the series to this point, there is going to need be some refueling.