What did we do to deserve Vin Diesel, that manly man of a vintage they haven’t been bottling since the heyday of Axl Rose’s first bandana? Vin’s tough but he’s tender. He puts women on the exact pedestal feminists thought they’d knocked over maybe 40 years ago. He’s loyal to his friends—the dead ones especially. And as he moves through the world as he knows it, powered by some unquantifiable mixture of ostentatious humility and laid-back self-love, he makes you believe that all the contradictions he embodies can be brought into balance with a crooked smile and the sound of his Barry White baritone crooning, “I don’t have friends. I got family.”
Make no mistake: despite their increasingly hectic ensemble structure, Vin Diesel is the entire organizing principle of the Fast & Furious movies—if they can even be said to have one. In Fast X, he isn’t onscreen overmuch, but when he’s not there the others talk about “Dom” the way Nathaniel Hawthorne’s parsons talked about God. What’s he doing? What should we do to please him? What would he do if he were me? It must be psychologically exhausting to be Dom Toretto’s friend.
That’s especially true in Fast X, where the villain’s sole purpose is to get revenge on Dom by knocking off enough of his “family” to make Dom suffer grievously before he gets popped too. The villain in question is a way-over-the-top Jason Momoa as Dante Reyes, psychotic son of Fast Five villain Hernan (Joaquim de Almeida), and heir to not much of anything. Dom and company wiped Hernan out when they memorably stole his hotel-sized vault in Buenos Aires by dragging it away behind their cars. Dom then used it to bash the man and his mercenary armies to death on a freeway that does not exist, in a scene that arguably launched the demented lunacy phase of the Fast franchise, and which is recapitulated here both in flashback and in a new variation involving a rolling neutron bomb.
Momoa is introduced in a couple of cutaways as a background character in all that Fast Five mishegoss and placed inside one of the anonymous vehicles Dom slaughtered, where Dante barely survived. Dante lost his dad, so Dom and him? Well, it’s personal.
About Momoa: He is not a solid enough performer to overact exactly, but he’s overdoing, well, something (and scenes of him attempting ballet and painting the nails of a corpse raise the uncomfortable prospect that “something” is homophobia). Coming out of the press screening, one audience member cried out joyfully that Momoa’s performance was “so absurd, it’s awesome,” and that is a way of looking at it, one supposes.
You get why Momoa would try to magnify whatever it is he thinks he’s emphasizing because the entire franchise is a hectic mess, albeit a beloved one. What started as a relatively plausible action flick set in the world of street racing expanded to become an Ocean’s 11 heist movie (Fast Five); then a Mission Impossible-style espionage action franchise (Fasts 6 thru 9), populated by comic book villains with names like “Cipher.” From around four movies in, every new development in this crazy franchise has been exponential: the recurring cast is around 30 actors deep, and the action scenes stopped trying to be CGI-plausible at least three movies ago.
These are blue-collar Bond movies now, scripted by your drunken uncle who is so impatient to get to the ’splosions and flying cars that he’s rushed past everything else to reach the “good stuff.” Gravity bends for Vin and his crew the way it obeys the commands of the flying sword fighters in a vintage Wuxia movie. So if you came for plausibility, you aren’t doing this movie right. You either go with it or you don’t.
But the focus inside the avalanche of stunts, asymmetrical plot elements, and mismatched genre tropes is still what Vin, and his alter ego Dom, would call “values.” Faith. Family. Honor. Loyalty. Because Dom is the last of a dying breed. He’s seen things a man shouldn’t had oughta seen, and done things a man shouldn’t had oughta done. He chuckles a lot when he’s with his family, but he rarely makes a joke and he almost never laughs. He’s in a grief state all the time, attentive to what’s missing, like a war veteran who’s lost too many comrades to the enemy, except Dom’s enemy is Life. And Diesel believes in Dom so hard that for two hours and 10 minutes, he makes you believe in him too.
No wonder Dwayne Johnson refused to come back for what we’re being told is an extended, multi-sequel last round-up for the Fast family. Johnson is inarguably the bigger star, but within a Fast film, there’s just no room for Dwayne and Vinnie’s self-love in even the widest of widescreen frames. The Rock is a modern action star after all—a charmer and a politician who never seems fully to buy into the imperatives of the action films he stars in; even as he punches a bad guy through a wall, he already seems like he’s going to reach over and help the guy up, and maybe ask for his vote in November. In Vinnie’s world there are rules—what used to be called a Code of Honor—and the first but unspoken rule is that, while everyone can be heroic, only one guy gets to be the Vinimitable, Vinvincible, VinDomitable hero.
The studio says Fast X is the first part in a franchise-ending storyline. But there is no other universe in which Vin Diesel can get paid $100 million dollars to grimace in front of green screens and spout aphorisms for about 40 minutes of screen time. End of the franchise? Don’t bet on it. Diesel has already intimated that the Fast movies might wrap up with a Fast XII. In one form or another, in whatever sequel closes this storyline down, something furious will this way come.
Fast X opens in theaters on May 19