Things I’m thankful for today:

  1. I had a couple answers to prayer this week about pressing concerns that were giving me an intense amount of anxiety. They would be minor issues to other people, but they were particularly troubling to a people pleaser like me. I feel my faith in pressing forward was rewarded with some good outcomes. Plus, I’ve had very encouraging interactions with coworkers who inspire me.
  2. Today’s baseball games were postponed–a bummer, sure, but this allowed me to spend quality time on the yard and is giving me more time to write.
  3. DIANA KAYE NELSON. The all caps is a warning we may enter TMI territory, so I’ll leave it at that.

My dad introduced me to the B&B Theater in Ozark, Missouri, in 2013. Our first movie there was A Good Day to Die Hard, a very forgettable entry in the series that probably killed the franchise. We still had a great time. That summer, for our 10th anniversary, I took Diana there to see the M. Night Shyamalan snoozer After Earth. (I remember some critic calling it After Birth, which still makes me laugh.) Again, a piece of crap, however well-intentioned. The food was excellent, though, and that night was still a fond memory, as we stayed the night in the same room at the Walnut Street Inn that we had stayed in exactly 10 years before, for our wedding night. It wasn’t until 2015’s Creed that I actually saw a good movie at the B&B, thus feeling like I had done myself a total service. B&B provides excellent atmosphere; state-of-the-art digital projection and sound; plush, leather reclining arm-chairs; great food; and excellent service. It’s a great place to spend quality time with your dad or your sweetheart, but make sure it’s a good movie. You’ll both feel better about yourselves in the morning. And understand, the quality of the movie has nothing to do with my dad/wife or the B&B itself. I just didn’t want to only associate crap movies with the best theater experience in the region.

Now for a backstory of a different sort, as this experience is the marriage of two father-son traditions: In 2001, Dad and I caught The Fast and the Furious at the Showplace 8 in Poplar Bluff. I think this was around the time that, after three years of operation, the staff of said theater learned to use their speakers. Previously, one couldn’t hear a line of dialogue. Bygones. We loved it. It caught us completely by surprise, this brash, arrogant, proud B-movie that embraced so many cliches and introduced new ones shamelessly. It came on the heels of some devastatingly awful big-budget car chase movies that couldn’t actually muster up a decent car chase, such as Gone in 60 Seconds and Renny Harlin’s Driven. I wanted to like those films, but they were awful–so much money, such big-name stars, put to complete and utter waste. At the time, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel had done a handful of films but were relative nobodies in comparison with Nicolas Cage and Sylvester Stallone. It did decent box office. A sequel followed the next year, which I saw with Diana. She was a great sport. Dad caught it separately, and we compared notes. Tokyo Drift came out a year or two later, and Dad and I saw it on DVD. We liked it but missed Diesel and Walker. And then we forgot about the movies for a while. The fourth, fifth, and sixth movies came out, and for some reason I didn’t care much. They were becoming bigger and more widely enjoyed, making ridiculous bank and apparently continuing to deliver the thrills they promised. I made it a point to see them eventually, but meanwhile my house was full of baby toys and poop, not to mention the babies responsible for them. Then Paul Walker died while Furious 7 was still in production, and all I could think about was catching back up.

Walker was not the world’s greatest actor. I’ll concede that. But I loved the man. He had this surfer-dude accent combined with a friendly, neighborly integrity that was magnetic. It made for a dependably charming screen presence that he carried into almost every performance. (Running Scared is quite the departure from this. If you can stomach it, see it.) I remember shortly after The Fast and the Furious, he did the thriller Joy Ride, alongside Steve Zahn. I thought, I really could watch this guy in anything. He’s somebody I’d like to know. He was humble and gracious and probably could put you at ease if you were at a party where you didn’t know everybody else. When he died, it devastated me. Of course he was too young, but the Fast and Furious movies had so much momentum, I thought he’d probably be doing them into his 60s. He was Brian O’Connor, the lifeblood of the series. He couldn’t die. But he did, and the sad reality of it make it imperative that I catch up on the series.

I got my priorities in order, watching 4-6 in quick succession. I shared the Netflix DVDs with Dad with instructions to mail them quickly after he’d watched them so we could get the next installment post-haste. We caught Furious 7 its opening weekend, by far the best entry in the series, and that’s saying something after the gleeful Ocean’s Eleven heist caper Fast Five. And the tribute to Walker before the end credits, set to Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again, brings me to a blubbering mess every time I think of it.

So now the series is post-Walker. Can the cast of Fate of the Furious carry on without him? In a word, yes, although all involved know how indebted they are to him. Dominic (Vin Diesel) gives fond references to him as “the buster,” particularly to the fun, physics-defying road race in Cuba that opens the film. And his affable spirit hovers over the film, even in spite of it having a more serious nature than previous entries. Other F&F movies take frequent time-outs to ogle hot-bodied mamasitas in barely-there outfits writhing around on equally hot-bodied hot rods, with the requisite music-video cutting, editing, and slow-mo, but Fate has little time for that nonsense. Aside from the opening scene, where the lack of clothing is almost justifiable from a well-it’s-hot-in-Cuba standpoint, Fate is comparatively puritanical–meaning that I’ve never felt more safe to put my wife through yet another F&F movie. Not only that, but it has a surprise appearance by a renowned British thespian that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling, but boy is it ever perfectly cast. Plus it has one of the most adorable baby boys ever to appear on screen. He’ll melt your heart, I swear.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dad and I met up at the B&B theater to watch Fate a couple weeks ago. There’s really not a bad seat in the house. I can’t remember what Dad ate, but I had a meatlover’s pizza calzone–an excellent dish, but I should have limited myself to about half of it and boxed the rest up. The service was excellent, as per usual. I’ve spoken with friends who decided won’t go there because they thing the ordering/delivery of food would interfere with the experience, but it doesn’t. The staff is very efficient and discrete in both taking and delivering your order. You barely notice them, which is what they intend. Meanwhile, they’re quick to provide what’s needed. The projection and sound were excellent as well–the latter cranked up to 11 so you could feel the roaring of the engines in your bones and teeth.

If you’ve seen the previews, you know that Charlize Theron plays a villainous hacker who compromises Dominic somehow and turns him against his team. (Theron is the film’s only real weakness for me. She’s confined mostly to scheming and overseeing her diabolical plan rather than taking part in the action, but there’s indications the filmmakers have further plans for her.) The trailer makes Dom appear brain-washed, almost possessed. The team, especially Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), know in their hearts that this isn’t the real Dom, and we know it too. There must be a reason, and there is. A pretty good one, actually, that’s perfectly in line with the series’ blend of unrealistic, imaginatively overblown action sequences and no-nonsense melodrama. The team is tasked by Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody to track down Dominic, to take him down if necessary, for the good of the country and the world. Nuclear warheads and codes are involved–that sort of thing. And keeping with the series’ tradition of turning previous bad guys into good guys, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is brought on board to assist with the assignment. Seriously, how could you cast Jason Statham in only one F&F movie? God forbid. Of course he’s back.

Fate has the right mixture of action- and emotion-packed payoffs the series is known for. If you’re not a fan by now, you never will be, and this review isn’t really for you. The F&F movies are to be judged against each other. No other action series approaches it. The ensemble cast is so much fun to watch, and each member added to the growing team over the years brings new energy, comic relief, muscles, and brains to the crew. (I use the term “brains” loosely and only in context of what counts for smarts in this particular universe–you know, computer-hacking skills.) The cars are loud–the engines rattle your rib-cage and make your hair stand up. The weapons are high-caliber and beautifully explosive. There are shootouts, martial-arts fight sequences, and chase scenes involving all manner of vehicles, including a tank and a nuclear submarine–often all happening at the same time. We miss O’Connor and always will, but this entry was made with all the heart Paul Walker himself brought to the project. It’s a worthy sequel. For me, it ranks probably 2nd or 3rd in the franchise. Seven will forever be my favorite. Five was the one that moved the series into its current universe. Fate of the Furious assures us that the filmmakers are keenly aware of what we want from these films, and it delivers.

Rating: 4.5/5