Franchise evolution is what keeps gas in the tank for a blockbuster film series. Superhero movies can ideally rely on a diverse set of characters that lend themselves to other subgenres, while James Bond generally works with what’s most popular in action cinema. Fast & Furious, a franchise I’ve unabashedly enjoyed and stuck by during the best and worst of times, has been forced to change multiple times. What started as a series of films about street racing has morphed into over-the-top adventures that place the balance of the world in the hands of cool former criminals and muscle-bound jokesters. The Fate of the Furious is the start of the next evolution and while very entertaining in its own ridiculous way, does it fit in with the rest of this film family?
The premise this time around involves Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) cutting his Cuban honeymoon short when tasked to pull off some major criminal jobs for the enigmatic Cipher (Charlize Theron). This means Dom is forced to turn his back on family, which is, as we all know, the most important thing to Dom. Nonetheless, the rest of Dom’s family (Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodrigues, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel) still need to stop Cipher’s scheme, which involves stealing significant pieces of technology that could hurt the world. They will receive help from Kurt Russell’s covert ops leader Mr. Nobody and his new underling (Scott Eastwood), as well as an unlikely ally – Jason Statham’s villainous Deckard Shaw.
F8te is following up the incredibly successful Furious 7, which puts it at somewhat of a disadvantage from the get go. Despite the unfortunate setback involving Paul Walker’s death, the film (appropriately) capitalized off an emotional component that played well with the ever increasing ridiculousness of the series. F8te is now tasked with setting up the first of a reported final three films, which means adding new dimensions to the story. Turning the lead character against his family for a majority of the film’s runtime is an interesting angle, but the delivery is problematic for a variety of reasons.
To be clear, I am well aware that a good segment of the audience is more about seeing Diesel, Statham and Johnson do crazy things with cars and their bodies, while Tyrese cracks jokes, as opposed to making sure everything logically clicks together. That is fair and F8te delivers on huge action sequences, featuring varied action and heightened physics (to put it mildly). Following the success of Straight Outta Compton (among other previous solid features) F. Gary Gray steps in as director this time around and acquits himself quite well. His directorial flair may not be as obvious as what James Wan delivered in the previous entry, but this latest Chris Morgan screenplay is handled with the same directorial confidence.
Looking at the opening scene alone, this series, at the very least, knows what it is. It’s a fun prologue that puts a spotlight on Dom, as he challenges a respected thug to a big race (defending his family, of course). Since Diesel runs the show as a producer, Dom must win. He doesn’t just win though; he manages to avoid death by fire and explosions and is cheered by crowds of random children. Rodriguez’s Letty smiles at him and the film puts us right back into this silly world. That’s all well and good and minus context, the rest of the film delivers on those same extremes. A ridiculous mess of CG cars chases down some key cast members in New York at one point, Statham actually tries to convince Johnson that he could take him in a fight and the entire third act pits our heroic street racers against a nuclear submarine.
Regardless of which scene you find the most ridiculous (hint: Statham can fit inside Johnson’s bicep), the escalation of scale and absurdity has been a key part of this franchise. Another is its earnest focus on family. The problem with F8te is how Dom is not the only one to turn his back on family. While the “rogue hero” concept is a good one, Morgan’s screenplay feels thin and lazy, resulting in a reduction of the series’ best quality and other issues.
Narrative choices are made out of convenience, rather than necessity. It takes a character like Statham’s Deckard Shaw and turns him completely around from being a big bad villain. This is the guy who murdered a member of the family in the previous films (Sun Kang’s Han), but this time around he’s mostly verbally sparring with Johnson, somewhat reluctantly helping out and likely being added to Dom’s exclusive e-mail list. That’s not to say Johnson and Statham aren’t fun together, as they most certainly are, but it’s just one of a number of areas where the film seems to stop caring about a level of continuity that had previously been so important to this series.
There’s also the Diesel factor. Obviously the 49-year-old extreme sports enthusiast works in the action scenes, but left to dramatically deliver against Theron, he’s outmatched. It doesn’t help that outside of tough talking Dom, Theron’s role largely revolves around staring at screens, saying some cheesy line menacingly and pressing buttons. She’s no Furiosa here and gets no action beats to work with. There’s also the matter of what reason she could possibly have to corrupt Dom. I will say it’s a reason that absolutely justifies itself. It provides Diesel with enough fuel to act more gravelly than ever. However, it also leads to one of the uglier scenes of the film, which seems constructed mainly to keep things from getting too complicated on a relationship standpoint.
Perhaps there would be less to remark upon if things didn’t feel so scattered. While there is a level of competence to the film’s structure (and ample scenes of Johnson lifting/maneuvering heavy things, but sadly not jumping from high places this time around), there’s something missing from this entry’s energy level. It’s not necessarily the lack of Walker, though Eastwood’s boring personality does little to make up for it as a replacement. Even one particular piece of stunt casting only provides so much joy, which feels more like a reason to be excited for possibilities in the next film(s). It’s not fatigue, as I’m happy to embrace plenty of silliness from Dom and his family, but this entry just feels more like a simple turn around a new corner, rather than a NOS-filled blast down a straightaway.
Regardless, while I sit aside to explore my apparent complicated feelings about this latest entry, just know that it is still largely enjoyable. It will be more pleasing to fans coming for ridiculous action (which is somewhat hindered by shaky cam) than those who ride or die with the series as a whole, but it’s a good time at the theater when it comes to goofy blockbusters. And yes, sometimes Tyrese cracking jokes really is just enough. As this franchise shifts gears in a new direction, I’ll at least keep seeing where this ride takes us.