Fast X

Fast X ★★★

The Fast & Furious franchise has long been flirting with both the narrative conventions of soap opera and self-reflexive commentary on its own serial nature. In certain moments and sustained side-glances – such as F9's preoccupation with death, or rather, its conspicuous absence – it's even outright embraced them. But Fast X feels like the first entry into the franchise that turns these little nods and asides into the very fabric of its text.

Take Jason Momoa's awesomely powerful villain: not only is he the vengeful son of one of the more forgettable foes Dom Toretto and his entourage vanquished in the past (thus retroactively spicing up one of Fast Five's major weaknesses) – he's also a Fast & Furious fanboy of sorts, squealing with mock delight at getting to race against the famous Dominic Toretto, decorating his Rio de Janeiro hideout with clips and stills from past Fast & Furious movies (lovingly referred to as his "vision board"), priding himself on correctly anticipating his opponents' next moves, saying things like "this is the final showdown." More than ever before in the series, here's a villain who seems to know exactly what kind of movie he's in.

The same goes for Jason Momoa himself, who hilariously and infectuously hams it up in a way that few, if any, previous Fast & Furious antagonists did (least of all his in-universe father, Joaquim de Almeida). That his character is flamboyantly queer-coded and has psychopathic nail-painting sessions with dead bodies, whom he lectures about the dangers of excessive masculine performance, does lend his exuberant turn a slightly uncomfortable edge – especially given the political context of right-wing pushes for rigidly enforced gender normativity into which Fast X is being released. Yet it's also fully of a piece with the franchise's long-running and visible struggle to celebrate traditional markers of toxic masculinity without actually championing the toxicity.

But this meta-villain's quest to make the protagonists suffer – which, after all, is what fans want (and perpetuate) when they go see one of these movies – is not an isolated phenomenon: Fast X as a whole has a tendency to feel like a museum dedicated to the Fast & Furious franchise. The opening set piece is an enhanced action replay of the vault chase from Fast Five, designed to introduce Momoa's villain. The film's early stages abound with flashbacks, visual reminders like photographs and newspaper clippings, and expository dialogue reviewing previous series events and re-establishing characters' relationships. Brie Larson and Alan Ritchson's respective additions to the canon are introduced while surrounded by screens not unlike Momoa's "vision board," hamfistedly recapping the plot of the first eight Fast & Furious movies.

And of course, there are the familiar faces – the crew we've gotten to know and love as well as the assorted villains and antiheroes that have been amassed over the last 22 years (or rather the last 14, considering that the first three films have long since stopped feeling essential to the canon). Charlize Theron is back, as are John Cena, Jason Statham, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood, and a few, let's say, mildly surprising callbacks. The series wrap-up has begun.

It really is a soap opera at this point – or, as Alan Ritchson's character memorably puts it, "a family-themed cult": no-one, it seems, is ever evil enough not to be granted redemption and induction into La Familia; no-one is ever dead enough not to be resurrected. And even if somebody's well and truly dead (for now), there is always an estranged sibling, a missing son, or a secret co-worker to pick up where the deceased person left off.

This is not a complaint though – on the contrary: one of the most persistent joys of the latter Fast & Furious movies is their foolhardy, mostly straight-faced dedication to this deeply silly network of relations, lovers, enemies, and deaths. Even at their most overlit, most awkwardly green-screened, most digitally-washed-out-in-post-production, it's this grounding in sincerity – this sense that the people behind the camera believe in the outrageously overwrought pathos of what they're committing to the screen – that makes the movies work so much better than they probably should.

The fact that Fast X seems more overtly self-aware than its predecessors does threaten to put the odd crack into this load-bearing sincerity – but this is, I would argue, counteracted to an adequate degree by the movie's full embrace of the series' soap opera aesthetics. The human drama is cranked to the absolute maximum, with both Dom's son and his Catholic (?) faith finding themselves in the villain's crosshairs this time around. There are surprising reveals within surprising reveals. The whole affair ends on gloriously overdramatic cliffhanger. The end credits even recap what happened in the preceding 135 minutes. And it is all, once again, played completely straight.

Yet for all its intricate lore, Fast X really is a simple movie, like each one that came before it: Vin Diesel and his friends drive fast cars in various locations; these cars collide with walls, windows, al fresco dining areas, explosive devices, other cars, tank trucks, and helicopters; there's a decent helping of fiery explosions and plenty of laid-back banter in between; we learn about family; Vin Diesel seems to be taking everything just that much more seriously than anyone else on screen; and it's all staged with the stylistically anonymous base competence of a for-hire craftsman like Louis Leterrier. It doesn't set the cinema screen on fire – but it works.

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