It’s safe to say the 16-year-old Fast & Furious franchise is an unqualified success. Its eighth entry, The Fate of the Furious, opened to a healthy $98 million at the U.S. box office this weekend and seems poised to be a financial boon like its forebears. The next two sequels are already greenlit and, in general, the Vin Diesel-starring, car-centric series is a crown-jewel property for Universal Studios. But there are some signs of trouble ahead: Fate’s opening was about $50 million down from the previous film, Furious 7, and the reaction from critics was similarly less rapturous. The franchise is doing fine, but there’s at least some reason to worry.
The answer to seemingly every question in the Fast & Furious world, for years, has been: more. Bigger. Is the star of your franchise a bald, muscle-bound celebrity? Why not add another, as Fast Five did by casting Dwayne Johnson? Getting tired of all the car chases? Why not add in a tank, a plane, a military drone, or (Fate of the Furious’s contribution) a submarine? Did you like the villain of the last movie? Have them switch sides and become a hero in the next one, as Jason Statham’s character did this time.
Going by this formula, the ninth Fast & Furious (due in 2019) will see Fate’s bad guy Charlize Theron ally with Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his band of merry folk. It’ll feature an action set-piece in space, or at least somehow involve a rocket ship, and it’ll add yet another bald action star (LL Cool J? Bruce Willis? Patrick Stewart? Samuel L. Jackson? Take your pick). Continually upping the ante, especially starting with Fast Five, is how Fast & Furious evolved from fairly niche territory (concerning the underground culture of street racing) to a globe-trotting series that feels like Ocean’s Eleven crossed with The Avengers. But: What if it bucked the trend? What if Fast 9 were to go smaller?
There’s an argument for the “back-to-basics” approach. In an era of franchise glut, where every summer week brings a new sequel eager to distinguish itself, it can be good to scale down. Logan, the umpteenth X-Men movie and third solo film for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, has become his most successful yet, despite a more restrictive R-rating and a storyline that doesn’t involve the imminent end of all life on Earth. Logan arrived under the radar and took critics by surprise—their approval, while not essential to box-office success, certainly helped generate good word-of-mouth.
Part of the success of the Fast & Furious franchise has been the various ways it’s re-invented itself and the strange way its ever-growing universe always manages to maintain its internal logic. But Fate made the kind of short-sighted plotting decisions that went against that. (Spoilers for the film ahead.) Deckard Shaw (Statham) was the bad guy from the previous movie Furious 7, who murdered the core cast member Han (Sung Kang) and blew up a hospital. In Fate, he’s suddenly one of the good guys, accepted into Toretto’s “family” along with his brother Owen (Luke Evans), who was the villain of Fast & Furious 6.
Why? Because Statham’s a huge action star, and he can give the kind of blazingly funny, self-aware performance required for one of these movies, while also doing his own elaborate martial-arts stunts. He’s another shot of adrenaline for a movie that has coasted to billions of dollars by throwing more big names and recognizable faces into the mix every time. Theron played the villainous hacker Cipher in Fate, but at the end she escaped with her life; perhaps she’ll have a similar change of heart as Deckard for Fast 9. But what was once organic now feels entirely forced. Statham isn’t bad in the movie, but he doesn’t fit like the rest of the cobbled-together ensemble (including Johnson, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, and newer addition Nathalie Emmanuel) do.
My suggestion: Take a risk, and get leaner. Throw a curveball to an audience that has willingly accepted every ridiculous plot twist; surely there’s no better sign of brand loyalty than 16 years of sustained success? The two keys to the Fast & Furious franchise are this: cars and family. The best sequence of Fate of the Furious has both—it’s the opening scene in Havana, where Dom and wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) race the local bigshot in a broken-down vintage car, to prove that it’s not the engine under the hood that matters, but the person behind the wheel.
Another car-centric caper, starring just the series’ core ensemble, and focused on smaller stunts and more emotional storytelling, is just what Fast 9 needs to surprise everyone—even if it doesn’t feature a submarine, or (as many are humorously pitching) a trip to the moon. Perhaps an Ocean’s Eleven-style jaunt in which the gang has to execute an elaborate heist. Or a race-against-time, high-stakes drama in which one of the group has been kidnapped and needs to be rescued. I’m not asking for an indie film here; I just don’t need another superhero movie. Marvel, DC, and others are churning out costumed heroes every month, but the Fast & Furious gang is basically indistinguishable from them, traveling around the world and using ludicrous technology like the “God’s Eye” (which allows them to hack any computer or phone on the planet).
The biggest reason to take my advice is the lower box-office total for Fate of the Furious. Furious 7 opened to $147 million in the U.S. and went on to gross $353 domestically and $1.52 billon worldwide. A confluence of factors, including the death of actor Paul Walker (who was memorialized in that film) and the longer wait time for its release, contributed to that take, but still, Fate’s $99 million opening is a notable step down. The reason that Universal Studios will probably ignore me, however, is the worldwide opening gross: A colossal $532 million in its first three days across the planet, bigger than any film before it.
Now, that discrepancy is partly because Furious 7 opened in China a week later than it did everywhere else. But the Fast & Furious brand is only growing stronger worldwide, even as U.S. audiences throttle back a little bit. As the studio thinking goes, worldwide audiences like big action sequences and big stars, not stripped-down movies that re-focus on core characters. It’s a reductive approach—Logan is doing just fine around the globe—but it’s the one that studios are increasingly going for. Perhaps Fast 9 will see Dominic Toretto drive to another galaxy. But you can’t top yourself forever.
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