You might be surprised to learn that a critical action set piece in the middle of The Fate of the Furious involves cars. Lots and lots of cars. Empty cars, hacked by the mysterious Cipher (Charlize Theron) and driven remotely through the streets of New York, en masse, to swarm and overwhelm her enemies. One shot sees dozens of vehicles careening out the windows of a parking garage; another is of a ridiculous pile-up, a writhing mass of automobiles jumping on top of each other, as if the cars were lemmings being herded off a cliff. If there’s a better symbol for the delights, and growing excesses, of the Fast & Furious franchise, I can’t imagine what it’d be.
We’re now eight films deep in a series that began as a high-end B-movie about street racing and has turned into a multicultural international super-spy saga (with plenty of cars still involved); it’d be hard not to lose steam at some point. Though The Fate of the Furious delivers all the high-octane action, ridiculous global spectacle, and grumbled Vin Diesel monologues about family that fans have come to expect, it also bears some signs of wear and tear. Its go-for-broke action sequences feel a little strained this time around, and the new cast additions don’t click quite as seamlessly with the beloved core ensemble. The Fate of the Furious offers everything you might want from the series, but those offerings are beginning to look ever so slightly stale.
I say this as a devotee of the Fast & Furious universe, which around the time of its fifth installment (Fast Five) became the kind of transcendentally schlocky super-soap that only the greatest long-running film franchises can be. Though the screenwriter Chris Morgan (who wrote the last six entries) and the producer Neal H. Moritz gradually swapped out the films’ “street racing bandits” focus for something far more grandiose over the years, they’ve retained the series’s core as a ballad of family and friends, sitting on the porch and clinking bottles of Corona together, toasting their loyalty and brotherhood.
Only this time, there are no Coronas (indeed, there’s a scene where, heavens above, the gang is drinking bottles of Budweiser). It’s one of the details that passes largely unnoticed in the still very watchable Fate of the Furious, but stuck in my craw after the fact: How could a series so focused on those fan-friendly details miss something so obvious? Other, larger story holes come later that require the audience to be willfully ignorant of events in past films. In a lesser franchise, I might forgive these slights, but part of the appeal of Fast & Furious is its ridiculous emphasis on continuity from sequel to sequel, and the delightful webs of alliances and rivalries it’s developed between its growing cast over the years.
The Fate of the Furious begins in Havana, where Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is enjoying his honeymoon with fellow car bandit/black-ops agent Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez). He gets dragged into a thrilling street race, an enjoyable call-back to the series’s roots, before being approached by the dreadlocked Cipher (Theron) with a mysterious piece of information that suddenly switches his allegiance. Toretto quickly betrays his pals and teams up with Cipher to wreak havoc around the globe, though the eventual revelation of her blackmail material is a satisfying link back through the franchise’s past.
This places a lot of the plot impetus onto Luke Hobbes (Dwayne Johnson), Toretto’s Hulk-sized former ally, who leads the team of Letty, smart-aleck Roman (Tyrese Gibson), tech whiz Tej (Ludacris), hacktivist Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to try and take Cipher down and learn how she flipped Dom. For this effort, they recruit Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the last movie’s villain, and Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood), a by-the-book government official who doesn’t know how to gel with our freewheeling gang of friends.
Statham, who’s always at his best when he’s mocking his own tough-guy persona, is a blast as a quasi-reformed Shaw, even if his inclusion in the group is tough to reconcile from a plotting perspective. Eastwood gives the series something it has long lacked—a genuinely uncool stick-in-the-mud that the rest of the gang can mercilessly mock. Still, he’s a pretty wooden replacement for the dearly departed Paul Walker, a mainstay of the series who was a perfect second fiddle to Diesel (Walker’s character was given a stirring sendoff in Furious 7 after his tragic death in the middle of filming).
Everyone else knows their role and has fun with their expanded screentime—from the jocular Gibson to the resurgent Russell, who’s clearly enjoying hamming it up in his later years. There’s plenty of absurd, globe-trotting action, with New York and the icy Russian wastes joining Havana as settings. And, as you might have gleaned from the promotional materials, there’s a big submarine to do battle with, though F. Gary Gray (a new director for the franchise) does not have quite the crisp grasp on vehicle-oriented action that his predecessors did.
Beyond that, there are some serious cracks showing. As Cipher, Theron simply doesn’t get enough to do, mostly barking nonsensical tech-speak from a plane. After the emotional highs of Furious 7, Fate is less overwrought and more focused on massive spectacle. Still, the resolution of Dom’s betrayal feels a little too simple. The Fate of the Furious lacks the operatic heart of its predecessors, and these films’ destiny is not secure without that. As Dom himself might tell us, it’s not what’s under the hood that matters, it’s who’s behind the wheel—and this is a series that might benefit, in the future, from going back to basics.