I’ve begun the last couple of reviews for films in the Fast & Furious series by noting just what an unusual path this franchise has taken to becoming one of the most successful and important film series of modern times. I don’t want to get too repetitive, but let’s just say that my opinion of this series has turned around so much that I’ve gone from thinking they were actively bad movies that I wouldn’t consider paying to see, to being hugely excited about seeing the latest instalment on opening night.
Despite the massive success the series has enjoyed, peaking with the $1.5 billion gross of Furious 7, this eighth instalment, boasting the silly title of The Fate of the Furious still doesn’t have too easy a task ahead of it. Furious 7 rounded out what was essentially a trilogy starting from Fast Five (the series true turning point), ended fairly definitively, and of course marked the last appearance from long-time series co-lead Paul Walker. The pressure is on F8 to being the team back together again, and deliver more of the same ridiculous action and sentimental family bonding, and on that count, it’s unfortunately a step down from the previous three films. Despite this though, it does at least attempt to change things up a bit and inject some new dynamics into the core group.
So in case you don’t already know, one of the big shake-ups is that Vin Diesel is the bad guy now! After beginning with something of a throwback sequence, as Diesel’s Dominic Toretto settles a score in Cuba the only was he knows how – by racing for it, complete with multiple gratuitous butt shots, he and his now thankfully no-longer amnesiac wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are called up by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to re-form the team for a job in Berlin. Jumping straight to the climax of the heist, Dom then betrays his own team, taking whatever the target was (an EMP device) himself and leaving Hobbs to be arrested.
I think this is actually a fairly solid idea, as the opening sequence worryingly teases that with Walker’s absence this might be another ego-driven, entirely Vin-centric movie in the vein of the recent xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, so removing him from the core team allows them all a possible chance to shine without him. And indeed, they don’t take too long in bringing in a replacement; to counteract the Vin Diesel heel turn, we get a Jason Statham face-turn! (Using wrestling terminology somehow feels appropriate when describing this series) Lest we forget, Statham’s Deckard Shaw spent the entirety of Furious 7 trying to kill them all, but bringing him into the fold somehow doesn’t seem too difficult for any of the rest of the team to accept.
It’s another good decision though, as Statham is absolutely great in the movie. They don’t welcome him in with open arms or anything though mind, he’s recruited by Kurt Russell’s (always a hoot) covert ops leader after him and Hobbs simultaneously break out of prison. There’s a brilliant rapport between Dwayne Johnson and Statham throughout, beginning by exchanging creative insults, then being forced to reluctantly work together to eventually earning a mutual respect; it has all the making of a great buddy movie. In fact, I’d love to see a Johnson/Statham action-comedy spin off with Kurt Russell as their sarcastic boss, it’d surely be a blast. Universal, make it happen.
Accepting Statham’s character into the team though, does raise one very large question mark; he did after all, kill Han (Sung Kang), one of the series’ most popular characters at the end of Fast & Furious 6 (though that was itself a retcon from Tokyo Drift, if you’re keeping up). Considering the whole series emphasis on “family” (it’s almost a joke now whenever Diesel says the word), there would surely be an issue with this? The film tries to get around it by simply having no-one make any mention of Han whatsoever. Now I can understand how this will rub some long-time fans of the series completely the wrong way, but it wasn’t a big problem for me because the world these films takes place in just doesn’t remotely resemble reality. I think long-time screenwriter Chris Morgan is just working with the idea that we all liked and appreciated what Statham brought to the series last time, so here he is being a good guy now! It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in pro-wrestling if you can forgive me for making another comparison there. And to be honest, I wouldn’t put it past Morgan to just bring Han back in one of the planned two future movies, it’s not like this series hasn’t resurrected apparently dead characters before.
Similarly, we know that bad guy Dom isn’t going to stay a bad guy, he’ll come back around and re-join his team in the end. The reason for his betrayal, which we learn around the halfway point isn’t quite so strong though, and if I can manage to talk around the specifics; it leads to another character being completely thrown under the bus in order to avoid Dom having to confront any sort of moral crisis. It’s not an especially good feeling for this series to so callously throw someone away, and also requires a bit more from Diesel in the acting department than usual which he isn’t quite up to.
The woman orchestrating all of this is another A-list addition to the cast, Charlize Theron as a master cyberterrorist called Cipher. Theron is clearly having fun with her opportunity to play a cartoonish villain, but sadly she feels mostly wasted in the film. Morgan’s script gives her some terrible lines, a real shame after how funny some of his Statham/Rock material was, but worst of all; she spends pretty much the entire movie giving out instructions from a control room. I mean come on, you’re the biggest action franchise around, and you cast the star of the best action movie of the last decade, and then don’t give her any action scenes! It seems like a totally missed opportunity.
Among the returning team members, Tyrese Gibson’s Roman has unfortunately managed to come full circle, starting out as an annoyance in the awful second film, I’d really come around to enjoying what he brought to the team in the last few movies, but now he’s gone back to being insufferable again. His main character trait here is that he and fellow series veteran Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges constantly hit on the much younger new team hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel), who herself is a fairly unremarkable character.
As for new additions, it initially looked like they had taken Paul Walker’s absence too literally and attempted to replace him with another one of these plentiful bland blond guys in the form of Scott Eastwood, but in fact Eastwood’s purpose, whose Kurt Russell’s new assistant, is mainly to be the butt of jokes that generally land. There are also a couple of very pleasing surprise appearances later on that you’ve probably already heard about but I won’t reveal just in case.
We know the overall plot for these films is going to be essentially the same each time around nowadays, the team has to perform an operation to collect some kind of world-threatening McGuffin device from some international location in a manner that will involve lots of cars and absurd stunts. They keep trying to top the previous movies in that department and have been generally successful in doing so. This one’s going to have to do something really special to out-do Furious 7 and boldly tries, though doesn’t quite manage it.
Director F. Gary Gray tends to be rather hit and miss (his last collaboration with Diesel, A Part Apart is utterly terrible), but he’s coming off one of the biggest successes of his career (Straight Outta Compton) and has a chance to work with a far bigger budget than ever before. Gray stages a few satisfying action beats but doesn’t show as much invention with his camera work as James Wan managed to on the previous film. There are a few big key action sequences that offer something new, (one involves “raining cars”!) and the big finale takes place in Russia on ice sheets and revolves around the cars taking on a nuclear submarine. It rivals Fast 6’s never-ending runway in the silliness stakes, and while it has its moments, goes on a bit too long and looks to rely too much on CGI rather than the practical stunt work seen earlier in the film.
In fact, despite the whole series’ emphasis on cars and large-scale stunts, the best action sequence in this film simply involves Statham attempting to escape from an aircraft filled with armed goons whilst carrying a particularly precious piece of baggage. It’s a wonderfully creative little sequence that harkens back to some genre classics, while allowing Statham to ably demonstrate his combat skills and comedy chops.
Overall, The Fate of the Furious is a mid-level F&F movie, it’s not up there with the previous three, but still easily above the weakest films in the series. Aside from the aforementioned issues with certain characters which who knows, maybe the next film will address, I imagine most fans of the series will still find plenty to enjoy in this instalment. I’m still going to be eager to see where they go next, though with somewhat tempered excitement, though that would all change if they do make a Rock/Statham spin-off. So if you’re wondering, it goes; 7>6>5>>8>>1>>3>>4>>2.