Following in the grand traditions of Captain America: Civil War (yay!) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (boo!), The Fate of the Furious pits hero against hero in a contest that doesn’t remind you as much of your parents’ divorce as the former and doesn’t suck like the latter.
If you’ve stared at a television in the last six months, you already know the story beats of the eight and most recent installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has gone rogue, blackmailed into working for a mysterious hacker (Charlize Theron), and he betrays his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his teammates in spectacular fashion on a Spec Ops mission. Said betrayal causes special agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, henceforth known as “The Rock”) to be sent to prison, right across from Furious 7 villain Owen Shaw (Jason Statham). Of course, circumstances will force Hobbs and the team to work with Shaw to try and bring down Toretto and save the world from potential nuclear annihilation.
Cue the boythatescalatedquickly.gif. Seriously, it’s like a ‘roided-up Bond movie with fast cars and plenty of crazy shit to drive audiences wild.
Paramount in any Fast and Furious movie are the characters, and it’s great to report that the cast is as solid as they’ve always been, with one notable addition, exception, and a genuine lack of the fun hang-out moments that have been the glue holding this franchise together. This absence normally would be a tremendous drag, but several important factors prevent it from becoming too much of an issue. First, The Rock and Statham have a great chemistry, and watching them throw threat after threat at each other, each more nonsensical than the one before it, is wonderful. Second, Theron is easily the best addition to the Fast franchise since… errr… Statham in the last movie, but she’s much more threatening and convincing as a villain than he ever was in that role. Being a good guy suits him, but Theron’s able to channel the iciness that has defined a lot of her character work pre-Furiosa into something absolutely menacing, which the series has, quite frankly, never seen before. As Cypher, the hacker who masterminded the plots in the previous two films (a shitty cliche of the modern blockbuster era that actually works effectively here) and who blackmails Diesel into working for her nefarious purposes in this one, she more than overpowers any actor who strays into her shot. Sadly, she’s not given the chance to actually drive a car during the film’s runtime, but she does remotely hijack and pilot a nuclear submarine (pretty much a giant phallus that can destroy the whole damn world), so the scales are somewhat evened.
That said, Diesel makes for an effective antagonist in his own right, and there’s something weirdly gleeful about watching him unleash carnage upon the helpless motherfuckers on the streets of New York or inside of a CIA bunker. However, if there’s a weak link in any of this, it’s Diesel who, when not kicking ass, somehow becomes the most boring part of any live-action film he’s a part of. He still doesn’t really have the chops to carry this franchise- he’s best looking stern and stoic behind the wheel rather than trying to convince the audience that it’s not saline solution streaming down his eyes when he’s crying over a lost friend — and it’s arguable that the reason the Fast series has gotten to be so good over the last several films is because he relies almost exclusively on his bench to carry that weight.
It’s this newfound focus on cementing Diesel as the new focus of the series that nearly sinks The Fate of the Furious — it’s completely and totally out of character for Toretto to do what he does in this film, and any time he’s not causing chaos or on the end of one of Theron’s lectures about the power of choice, the movie drags unbearably and the audience wonders where the Rock is. That’s the scary thing about the post-Paul Walker future of this franchise: Brian O’Connor, the true protagonist of the series, is gone off in some other part of the Fast world, never to return, and the series is just (understandably) cowardly when it comes to picking a replacement that isn’t Diesel (who is also a producer on the film, so…).
It should be noted that director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, the 2003 Italian Job remake) never stood a chance at making scenes that could compete with Justin Lin’s brilliant and clean action sequences in 5-7, and it’s a definite disservice to all of the new stuff that Fate tries to do with the formula to spend the whole runtime missing Lin, as some undoubtedly will. Lin always favored action that he could do practically (the one time he didn’t, in the parking garage finale of Furious 7, was amongst the worst sequences in franchise history), and while that works beautifully when you’re working with (relatively) small scale action, Gray practically wants to make a Bond movie here and uses the VFX tools in his arsenal to varying effect.
The Siberia-set finale, where Theron seizes the nuclear phallus and uses it to try and fuck the free world, is obviously where much of the budget was spent, and it looks the best out of any action sequence in the film. Still very fun but less visually accomplished is the New York sequence, where Theron deploys a fleet of hacked cars to attack a motorcade in a scene reminiscent of both Terminator 3 and the ant-zombie mobs in World War Z. His physical action scenes are completely incomprehensible (the much-ballyhooed Rock/Statham jailbreak sequence is a total bust), but luckily that doesn’t cross over to the car scenes too much.
As it stands, The Fate of the Furious is perhaps the weakest of the last four films, but it’s got enough gas in the tank to push it past installments one through four. It’s nowhere near as fun, as character-focused, as dedicated to the tension-ramping, as pulse-pounding and exhilarating as Fast Five was, which remains the pinnacle of modern-day franchise redemption and, perhaps, the best hangout movie of all time (or at least tied with Magic Mike XXL).
One can only hope that the transfusion of fresh blood into the series will enliven it in future installments, given that they’re going to be making these things until the heat death of the universe itself, and that they can find a director a little more accomplished than Gray to make the action pop as well as it used to. It’s understandable that the crew would still be a little loss in the wake of Walker’s tragic death, and it’s still a wonder that Furious 7 and this are as good as they are, though that film benefitted from being conceived before his death. One can only hope that the relaxed and conversational vibe of 5 and 6 can return.
Still, there’s only one place you can go to watch The Rock punch a torpedo into another car, and that’s this film, so it’s hard not to recommend. And with the advent of such monstrous shit like Transformers: The Last Knight on the horizon, it’s nice to be reminded that you don’t have to “turn off your brain” in order to enjoy ridiculous action and great characters. So savor it, folks, for there is a long summer ahead, free of the particular joy this movie brings.