The Fast and Furious franchise is one of Hollywood’s undisputed oddities. The schizophrenic naming system is its most obvious idiosyncrasy, but the series’ overall quality is just as unpredictable. These films range from unbearably bad (2 Fast 2 Furious) to regular bad (Fast & Furious) to mediocre (Fast & Furious 6) to decent (Tokyo Drift) to legitimately good (Fast Five), so in a way part of the excitement comes from not knowing where the next one’ll land on the scale. It’s been a white knuckle ride watching a series duct-taped together with flimsy characters, inconsequential plotting and gratuitous butt-shots, careen closer and closer to self-parody and ignominy with each increasingly ridiculous installment. Almost miraculously, these movies always manages to remain more or less on course, reveling in their own wild inconsistencies.
What began as a rather low-key story about Los Angeles street racers has evolved into balls-to-the-wall action spectacle of the most explosive caliber; the laws of physics have long since disappeared in the rear view. Full of wholesome camaraderie and impossible stunt work, the most recent entries are like a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Brosnan-era Bond. Many long-running series fret over how to avoid jumping the shark, but Fast and Furious takes a different path by coming up with bigger and bigger sharks to jump over. The Fate and the Furious, the eighth film since 2001, shows no signs the franchise is going to pull back on the snowballing sense of scale. For instance, the ‘shark’ this time is a nuclear submarine (as close they’ve come to jumping over an actual shark).
Long has it been established that the franchise revolves around ‘family’, with Vin Diesel’s Dom as head patriarch, a deceptively wise Jesus figure with a revolving door of ethnically diverse disciples. Every time he opens his mouth, the word “family” spills out like the most wholesome of Tourette’s symptoms. It’s a punchline by this point, but the unabashed hokeyness of Vin’s family mantra has become the series’ greatest strength. The conviction with which Diesel delivers his proclamations of unity, not to mention the genuine chemistry between the entire cast, is wildly effective in keeping audiences invested in the characters. In the absence of any serious stakes (at least three characters have died and come back to life in some way) or true emotional substance, Dom’s sweet, uber-cheesy value system is the glue that holds the whole rickety enterprise together.
This is important to note because, after a ludicrous opening sequence in Havana that harkens back to the series’ street racing roots, long-time series writer Chris Morgan throws a curveball that threatens to disrupt the very core that makes these movies work. One moment Dom is helping icy blonde stranger Cipher (Charlize Theron) with car trouble. Next thing he knows he’s betraying the rest of his crew, stealing a deadly EMP device and fleeing aboard Cipher’s high-tech airplane. At first the lack of explanation for Dom’s uncharacteristic turn is uncomfortable, decimating the lovable meathead figure before our eyes. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for his motivations to be made clear, and audiences are able to take a sigh of relief: family is still the filmmakers’ top priority.
With Dom on the dark side, it’s up to the rest of his family to bring him back to the light, and also to deliver a tangible sense of team spirit in his absence. As usual, most of the laughs come from wise-cracking Roman (Tyrese Gibson), who’s especially on-point when mocking the new blank slate pretty-boy played by Scott Eastwood (aptly named ‘Little Nobody’). He’s second-in-command to their equally-bland new team leader, government operative Mr. Nobody, who’s at least afforded a semblance of charisma by the great Kurt Russell. Another fun new dynamic is the hostile, strangely adorable relationship between DSS agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and former villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), which gradually blossoms from bitter aggression into sweet, sweet bromance.
While the self-serious ‘DOM HAS TURNED ON FAMILY’ twist threatens to bog the story down with extraneous plotting (you know, the stuff that has always mattered least in these films), the substantial dose of comic relief from the family (rounded out by Ludacris’ Tej, Nathalie Emanuelle’s Ramsey and Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty) provides exactly that: relief. The lovable, dopey interplay assures the movie stays planted firmly at the intersection of dumb and badass. Oddly enough, the worst new addition is Charlize Theron, who’s usually the best part of anything she’s in. The ice queen shtick is tired, and she doesn’t do anything new or interesting with it. The franchise has always been full of archetypes, but they’re usually hilariously archetypal; Theron is just plainly so.
Why am I still talking about the characters, though? This is a Fast and Furious movie and the main attraction will always be the high-octane set pieces. Fate‘s action sequences may not be the best-executed in the franchise’s long history, but they are some of the biggest and most creative nonetheless. Of special note is a spectacular mid-film section in which Cipher hacks hundreds of cars to incite a self-driving stampede through the city streets of New York (only slightly more terrifying and dangerous than your average drive through NYC). It’s these types of moments, void of all logic, that reminds us that blockbusters are at their best when they embrace the impossible. Ditto with the wacky submarine climax, complete with Tyrese wake-surfing on a Lambo door across a frozen river.
There are two main reasons that the action doesn’t live up to its predecessors: first, though director F. Gary Gray (coming off of Straight Outta Compton) does a great job handling the Nos-fueled car chases, he struggles with the on-foot scenes, far too choppy when compared to James Wan’s excellent hand-to-hand brawls in Furious 7. It’s odd that the camera never has any problem following the near hyper-speed vehicles, but comes down with a heavy case of the shakes when trying to keep up with Jason Statham’s legs. The second problem is that, as the size and scope of the action increases, so too does the need for CGI. As a result, there’s a noticeable reliance on computer-generated artifice over practical effects, which means the film will not age as well as the last few have.
The movie’s other main issue is its length, which could have easily been cut down if not for the desire to introduce new characters such as Helen Mirren as Jason Statham’s foul-mouthed mum. While the newbies each have their moments, the movie never makes the case for why it was necessary to include Mirren, Eastwood or Russell, except to inject some new blood and set up for… whatever crazy title they come up with for the next movie. The best F&F films are those that have leaned on brevity rather than trying to be some sort of giant Avengers ordeal that’s overly concerned with the future.
Though unwieldy and mercilessly idiotic, this franchise has battering-rammed its way into the hearts of filmgoers, myself included, through pure willpower and bombast. The longer the series runs, the harder it becomes to turn on the ‘Fast’ family. As long as the filmmakers continue to genuinely care about the characters as much as theatergoers do, the series will always have a strange innocence and amiability that most blockbusters try to avoid in an attempt to be taken serious. Since taking a Fast and Furious movie seriously is contradictory to their very existence, by all means: bring on the stupid.
Score: 3.5 out of 5