de facto film reviews 3 stars

It’s hard for any franchise whose previous film literally went to space to be brought back down to earth, especially the Fast and Furious franchise, whose characters have defied the laws of physics, science and God, for that matter, for the previous five to six entries. And while I would never claim that the tenth installment in the franchise, eleven including the spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, is remotely grounded, it is a welcoming surprise that Fast X makes the series feel relatively human again. After the highly publicized departure of original director, Justin Lin, the filmmaker arguably most responsible for reviving the franchise, after just one week of principal photography, all signs of a disaster were imminent. With The Transporter 1 & 2 director Louis Leterrier stepping in to save the day, the franchise, once more, finds itself facing an uphill battle. The series, undoubtedly suffering since the tragic passing of star Paul Walker, has been waning in the creative department, and while we’re still not at the heights of entries 5, 6 or 7, new villain Jason Momoa and director Leterrier breath some new blood into this tenth installment.

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Mia (Jordana Brewster) and the gang have been framed for an attempted bombing of the Vatican and yet again find themselves on the run from international agencies, and the formidable wrath of new villain Dante (Jason Momoa), the son of Hernan Reyes, the drug kingpin whose vault of money was stolen and was killed back in Fast Five. Immediately, the introduction of Momoa’s Dante is the biggest shot in the arm to this franchise for the past few installments. Not since Dwayne Johnson’s first appearance, back in Fast Five, has an antagonist posed such a threat to Dom and the gang, and with this much attitude and menace. The flamboyant Dante revels in chipping away at Dom’s spirit, wiping out the money he and his team have collected and waging war against anyone who’s ever set foot at Dom’s dinner table — which is a lot. “Never accept death when suffering is owed” utters Momoa early on, and that sentiment is felt throughout the 141 minute runtime. Momoa’s gleeful menace is beyond inspired, channeling the anarchic spirit of Bugs Bunny. There’s even a sequence with Momoa and two corpses that’s not far off from an infamous moment in Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

While Leterrier, a sturdy director-for-hire, lacks some of the spatial clarity in the action sequences brought by Lin and the creative energy of James Wan, he does an admirable job at keeping the tension and absurdity firmly hand-in-hand. An early set piece in Rome with a bomb barreling throughout the city resembles the video game Rocket League and showcases some exciting moments of destruction, even if the film studiply goes out of its way to claim no lives were lost, despite a nuclear-sized bomb detonating in the middle of Rome; even for this franchise no one is buying that. At one point, Toretto, and his son Little B (Leo Abelo Perry), drive off the side of an exploding dam as Momoa cackles in Dom’s ear via walkie talkie. Of course the ridiculousness is ever-present here, but the added human stakes make the most far-fetched moments register more than the overt-cartoonishness of F9. For the first time in years, you can feel the odds stacked against Dom and the gang.

Fast X features more returning characters, new characters and characters you never expected to see again than any past installment. Vin Diesel is as leathery-voiced and stoic as ever, while having the added advantage of bouncing off a plethora of new screen partners, namely Momoa, Brie Larson’s Tess, Daniela Melchior’s Brazilian racer Isabel and even Rita Moreno who shows up early on as Dom’s grandmother. Alan Ritchson, a longtime underappreciated actor who recently saw his status elevated with the Prime Video series Reacher, is Aimes, the agent leading a squad to capture Dom and crew. Ritchson is given a fairly thankless role, but injects his own brand of badassery and makes for a fun new addition to the series. The rest of the gang, Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Han (Sung Kang) are off on their own side mission in London, but thankfully the banter between the gang has more laughs and less groans than F9. Letty is captured and stuck in a blackgate prison alongside Fate and F9‘s villain Charlize Theron’s Cypher. The two have a mono y mono brawl that is among the film’s biggest highlights.  John Cena’s recently reformed Jakob, Dom and Mia’s little brother, is given the gig of looking after Little B, with the two having some fairly light-hearted moments together, if you can get past the fact that Jakob was a brutal murderer in the past film, but hey, family, right??

You can feel Leterrier sometimes struggling to juggle over a dozen primary characters, and the storytelling is far from the cleanest. The film is a structural mess, but for as many characters and diverging side plots as there are it’s quite a feat that it all remains largely cohesive. The lack of an actual climax will certainly come as a shock to many. This is very much a part one of two, or possibly three if you take Vin Diesel’s word for it, and ends on a major cliffhanger, along the lines of The Empire Strikes Back, or more recently Avengers: Infinity War. Assuming it is, indeed, one more film, the stage is set for a major finale, with characters remaining in peril, the fate of some unclear and many plot threads still left dangling.

Fast X is a vast improvement over F9 and finds just enough creative juice to bring the franchise back on track. With a villain for the ages in Jason Momoa, creative action sequences and more real stakes this time around, the tenth Fast and Furious installment won’t win over audiences not already tuned in to the series, but it shows there’s still enough gas to make it to the intended finish line.