After you've launched your car into outer space, I suppose there's nothing to do but wait for it to crash back down to Earth, and that's basically what happens in Fast X.
In terms of deliriously over-the-top spectacle, it was definitely going to be tough to beat Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges using their souped-up auto to reach the International Space Station. But following the giddy ridiculousness of 2021's F9: The Fast Saga (and the even-juicier pleasures of 2017's eighth installment The Fate of the Furious), director Louis Leterrier's new adventure for Dom Toretto and family is a considerable drag. There are, as always, terrific stunts, and you could hardly call franchise addition Jason Momoa unmemorable. Too much of this outing, though, reeks of creative stagnation and dull fan-service repetition, and a few plot points are even nuttier – though not in a good way – than the sight of Tyrese and Ludacris in orbit. Because this film is designed as the first in a purported Fast & the Furious trilogy that will ultimately wrap up the series (yeah, sure, whatever), you won't be shocked to learn that Fast X doesn't end so much as “end.” That discovery wasn't as disappointing as the 135 minutes that preceded it.
You'll likely realize that something is amiss within the first 15 minutes, because after an extended flashback to the glory days of 2011 and a scene of Vin Diesel's Dom teaching his eight-year-old son “Little B” (Leo Abelo Perry) how to drive and drift a hot rod, we immediately segue to a Toretto-clan cookout. As usual, friendly insults are tossed, Corona is consumed, familia is celebrated (and personified in Rita Moreno's cameo as Dom's grandma), and those of us who've dutifully followed along since 2001 and know these things always conclude with cookouts are left thinking Wait … did I miss the movie's first two hours? We didn't. But it's important to get the relaxation in, given that once the outdoor party is over, we're left with nothing but plot. Ten F&tFs in – or 11, if you count 2019's abysmal Hobbs & Shaw spin-off for Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham – there's now so much plot to keep track of that lengthy sections here are devoted simply to characters keeping us (and each other) in the loop. Thankfully, though, despite boasting approximately a zillion recognizable performers, the Fast X narrative can be easily summed up in three parts: (1) Jason Momoa's Dante Reyes wants revenge for the Fast Five murder of his father; (2) Dante effectively frames Dom and company for a terrorist attack in Rome; (3) Dom and company have to clear their names and end Dante's reign of terror. So, ya know, you can see why the film needs to be almost two-and-a-half hours long.
Within the gaseous bloat of Leterrier's endless action flick, I'm sure there's a decent 90-minute entertainment lurking around somewhere, considering that so much of what made previous installments enjoyable is duly accounted for. That terrorist attack is the film's unquestionable high point. While you may wince at the citywide demolition and pray that the Book Club ladies aren't among the innocent bystanders, the protracted mayhem resulting from an enormous rolling explosive that's also, naturally, on fire is a hoot, even if the film's CGI and green-screen effects are, overall, distractingly weak. (This is especially true during the climax that finds Dom, in Portugal, high-speeding his vehicle down the surface of a dam – a cool idea poorly executed.)
Also, even if you marvel at how thoroughly Diesel can overact even when merely driving, his co-stars are consistently watchable. Gibson, Bridges, Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Jon Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang, Scott Eastwood, Jordana Brewster, Oscar winners Moreno and Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren and Brie Larson … . Despite my inability to fathom why the latter was recruited beyond a need to even out the Marvel/DC playing field, these are pros who know precisely where they fit in the scheme of things and deliver precisely what's expected. Momoa, meanwhile, goes beyond the expected and into some loopy stratosphere of androgynous camp, and Fast X is all the finer for it. Dante isn't terribly threatening, yet he's an arresting psychotic nonetheless, and Momoa provides just enough instability in his fey-baritone readings and swishy-bruiser physicality to make you tense up, with a giggle, whenever he's around. If there was even a hint of meanness or condescension in Momoa's portrayal, he may have been insufferably offensive. Instead, his work feels joyous and as close as this series gets to spontaneous; Momoa is the single best reason to look forward to a Fast XI.
It's the rest of Leterrier's film that makes that prospect less than enticing, because despite the many corpses, nothing here is killed quite like our time. On at least three occasions, characters kick the crap out of each other before calling a truce, making all the body blows and prop destruction irrelevant. Because the camera apparently needs an excuse to crawl up female extras' backsides, there's an unnecessary mid-movie street fiesta, plus a drag race between Dante and Dom – and a confounding one, given that Dom, at this point, shouldn't be competing with the guy so much as bashing in his skull. In a tangential swerve from the main action, Gibson, Bridges, Emmanuel, and Kang get trapped in a light-comedy detour featuring a former castmate from SNL. When they're not causing one another seemingly irreparable physical harm, Rodriguez and Theron are stuck in a combo spy/escape thriller. Cena and young Perry are effectively doing a remake of Vin Diesel's The Pacifier..
And where is Paul Walker's Brian O'Conner during all of this? As the actor died nearly 10 years ago, you'd be right to answer “Heaven, hopefully.” But in what was a touching decision at the time, the character of Brian didn't perish, but was rather “retired,” and theoretically living out his days in peace with his family. Now, however, that Momoa's nutjob is actively seeking to execute Don's loved ones, among them Brian's wife Mia, it makes no earthly sense that Brian would just be contentedly chillin' on the beach, and Fast X consequently finds itself in a serious pickle. The series' producers can't kill off Brian now – that would be too manipulative for even a bottom-feeding franchise … right …? – and they certainly can't recast the role. So are we meant to simply forget about Brian? Will the filmmakers employ computer-generated trickery of the sort used on Walker's unfilmed Furious 7 scenes? I guess the answers to those questions are reason enough to catch yet another sequel … though they're hardly the upbeat impetus that Momoa is.
In writer/director Paul Schrader's tightly wound character drama Master Gardener (currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey), audiences are asked to believe two essentially improbable truths. One is that the central figure Narvel Roth, as embodied by 48-year-old Joel Edgerton, is a purportedly reformed neo-Nazi and White Pride executioner who falls head over heels for a mixed-race drug addict half his age. The other is that Roth would allow himself to remain in sexual servitude to his boss: a bitter, alcoholic tyrant whose memories of fleeting TV fame reveal her to be well into her 70s. Despite the persuasiveness of Edgerton and his appealing co-star Quintessa Swindell, I never bought the former conceit. Yet I resolutely believed in the latter, given that the movie's septuagenarian hot mess was portrayed by the classically gorgeous, unfailingly magnetic Sigourney Weaver.
Despite her pop-culture-icon status thanks to all those Aliens and Avatars and Ghostbusters, it somehow feels like Weaver has still never received her full due as a screen actor; over the past quarter-century, she certainly hasn't been granted the opportunities that her contemporary (and former Yale School of Drama classmate) Meryl Streep has enjoyed. Yet every once in a while, usually in movies that don't fully deserve her, we're treated to reminders of what this sensational talent can deliver under the right circumstances. And even though she's only in a handful of scenes in Master Gardener, Weaver takes her rather schematic role as cruel, wealthy recluse Norma Haverhill – a name with surely intentional echoes to Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond and Great Expectations' Miss Havisham – and freaking goes to town with it. Edgerton and Swindell have more significant screen time, but it's Weaver you most remember and respond to: ending a seemingly pleasant lunch with Swindell's Maya, Norma's grand-niece, by deeming the young woman “impertinent” and storming out; vacantly outstretching her arm toward her butler for a wine-glass refill while drunkenly jabbering away; responding to a moderately benign Roth request with an intimidatingly low-voiced “That is obscene.” Weaver is both hilariously stylized and abjectly terrifying in Schrader's latest, and if the movie itself doesn't quite live up to her contributions, let's be fair: very few movies could.
Reportedly the completion to Schrader's initially unplanned “God's Lonely Man” trilogy that began with 2018's First Reformed and continued with 2021's The Card Counter, Master Gardener isn't the first-rate achievement that those titles are, and occasionally feels like a parody of them. Once again, we're introduced to a middle-aged loner who writes long, philosophical musings on life's meaning in his journal, and always in a room with as little illumination as possible. Once again, our lead's soft-spoken nature doesn't hint at the horrors he's capable of: instigating explosive eco-terrorism in First Reformed; committing Abu Ghraib atrocities in The Card Counter; assassinating Blacks under a banner of “national identity” here. Once again, our nominal hero is potentially redeemed by the love of a good woman, with Swindell taking over where Schrader's former saviors Amanda Seyfried and Tiffany Haddish left off. And once again, Schrader blends banality (and some awkwardly fraudulent dialogue) with the threat of evil – although in this case, with Edgerton's witness-protected Roth giving frequent lessons in botany to Swindell's troubled orphan, far more banality than evil.
All told, it's a mixed bag. Schrader's sense of composition remains stellar, he's diabolically good at racheting up the tension with flashes of violence that don't feel manipulative, and beyond his three central performers, he elicits topnotch work from the too-rarely-seen Esai Morales, who's sensationally cagey as a level-headed, conceivably corrupt police contact. The writer/director also pulls off a brief, beautiful fantasy sequence in which Narvel's and Maya's mutual adoration literally blossoms as their highway drive turns into a multi-hued voyage through a field of flowers. Yet too much of this very deliberately paced offering felt redundant and overly familiar, and in a crucial disappointment, despite the actors' individual excellence, Narvel and Maya don't ring true as a couple for an instant. Their union is actually intensely (unintentionally?) creepy, and not just because of the swastikas and White Pride insignia plastered on the man's chest and back.
For more than an hour of the film's length, Narvel talks about Maya, and behaves with her, as though the 20-something were a daughter figure – and this makes sense, given that the onetime neo-Nazi lost all contact with his own daughter after he entered the witness-relocation program. Narvel's turnaround, then, into eagerly agreeing to be Maya's lover comes not just as a shock, but a vaguely incestuous one, and may have been forgiven if we were meant to view their relationship as icky. We're not, though. As Schrader apparently sees things, she's right for him, and he's right for her, no matter the evident lack of visible romantic chemistry, sense, and taste. Still, I'd hardly argue against seeing Master Gardener, which is just well-acted, presentationally accomplished, and engrossing enough to carry you through your numerous queries and complaints. Here's hoping, though, for a little more Sigourney Weaver in Schrader's next deep dive into the dark side. That, or maybe one of the filmmaker's tortured protagonists could at least turn on an overhead light.