Though Fate of the Furious is still kitsch and Ludacris-ly fun, this transition in its post-Brian era feels weaker due to changes of the new direction.
When Rob Cohen created The Fast and the Furious in 2001, he never imagined his Point Break rip-off (also inspired by an old movie and an article about illegal street racing) could come this far. Revived with Fast and Furious in 2009 after an unpaid risk (i.e., Tokyo Drift), the race-and-heist franchise secured its sweet spot with Fast Five. If there existed a list of movies relying on arbitrary personal taste, *F&F *would take the top spot. Personal preferences speak little in how we feel about the movies. It’s weird like that.
The eighth installment, Fate of the Furious (they didn’t stylize it as F8!), should handle a monumental task: the movie must continue the franchise after losing Paul Walker. Brian’s warming presence is missing, and others must fill this gigantic void while making the constant reminder of “family” feel less like a worn-out fail-safe for arguments. Therefore, F&F veteran writer Chris Morgan raised the stake by having the alpha male “gone rogue”.
During a honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in Cuba, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is blackmailed, with a reason unknown, by a mysterious woman (Charlize Theron) to do her bidding. His team later joins agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to retrieve an EMP device, then Dom suddenly runs off with it and leaves his team—let’s tone down the use of “family”—shocked and confused. As a result, Hobbs goes to jail, ironically right across the cell of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), another past villain of the crew. After breaking out, the hateful duo is recruited by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) to help the crew track down Dom and his blackmailer.
Straight out of Straight Out of Compton (pardon the joke) to the director seat of Fate, F. Gary Gray looked like a fine choice. His remake of The Italian Job back in 2003 was a surprise hit, proving Gray’s knack for creating group chemistry and staging car chase sequences—I loved that fantastic Mini Cooper scene. Fans expected him to bring a refreshing take to the mix as James Wan and Justin Lin were both busy with their projects. However, the growing spectacle was out of sync with Gray’s forte for a smaller setting.
While Fate ambitiously goes global, set pieces are less impressive than in earlier movies even though Gary maintained the vibe of nonsensical glory. The opening car sequence welcomes fans back to dirty street racing—the franchise’s original trademark—in the exotic, sunny Havana. This race was directed with Gary’s kinetic enthusiasm, dignified by classic 50s-vintage Cadillacs and Chevrolets. Next, absurdity is pumped up a notch as Cipher, the villainess holding Dom’s skeleton in the closet, sets hundreds of cars in self-driving mode on the street of Manhattan. It keeps getting more and more chaotic with cars falling out of windows and stampeding across the city like a massive, multicolored herd of bison. Here’s the redeeming quality: the team then surrounds Dom in an entertaining, physics-defying-as-usual confrontation, which narrows the spectacle to get close and personal. And the final chase in Russia takes it up to eleven with a submarine cutting through the ice, hot on the heels/wheels of Dom’s crew. While retaining the goofy humor, this sequence is technically inferior to previous ones (especially my favorite pursuit with that giant safe in Fast Five) because the action overworks itself, intercut with more drama and revenge acts. The ice course might outdo the long runway in Fast 6, which stretched to almost a marathon’s length. Geographically speaking, these scenes are not clearly established or linked together to follow plot beats.
So what makes this franchise tick all along? Family, of course. But what kind of family? A breakthrough of F&F in Fast Five, it’s the idea of communal life. When blood relations are forceful on personal lives, communal life means a choice for who we want to love, endure, and protect.
So is there any challenge to its status as the cornerstone of Dom’s crew? That’s the question asked by Fate to focus on Dom’s source of drama. His betrayal is a publicity stunt done right, and this surrogate patriarch of the family is also resourceful. He is neither passive nor submissive to Cipher and has now become the amalgam of Riddick and Xander Cage (two other famous roles of the bass-low-voiced Diesel). Dom’s secret, despite being developed from F&F’s pile of baggage, poses a serious issue to his idea of family, and he hopes to untangle this matter once and for all.
Walker’s absence leaves an unfillable spot in the team; Letty even stresses on this as Brian is now staying permanently in the background. Luckily, the franchise is relaxing us as it already had The Rock’s Hobbs, a fan favorite from Fast Five, who now has a huge role in this “family”. The hulking DSS agent might soon get his spin-off to make use of Johnson’s stardom, but right now, he is suitable enough as an invincible Greek god with a charming attitude. Hobbs shares the movie’s best scenes with Statham’s Deckard Shaw as they trade outrageous insults in edgy banter. Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) has a small part, adding to the larger theme of blood relations after his mother (the ever-charming Hellen Mirren) hilariously dominates his big brother in a short scene. But Big Shaw is the one who will become Dom and Hobbs’ unusual ally. In the final act, Deckard earns a chance to redeem his villainous image in the most winsome way possible.
As the franchise evolves, central characters increasingly develop their own expertise out of nowhere, like Ludacris’ Taj as a computer expert and Tyrese Gibson’s Roman as a jester. These two also get involved in a flirtatious love triangle with newcomer Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). Letty becomes more of an intimate emotional anchor for Dom, yet she gets less time as the femme fatale that she is. In a time when the cast is getting crowded, Russell’s charismatic Mr. Nobody also has to share his screen time with the young blood, which might predict his eventual departure.
The villain role is a walk in the park for Theron. Cipher, as “the definition of a high-tech terrorist”, appears distant with not much emotion going on, except for anger. Probably too impressive as Furiosa in Mad Max, the gifted actress brought stone-cold heartlessness to her character. The role is still a waste of talent when the movie didn’t put her behind the wheel or let her get physical—Theron was awesome in the trailer for The Atomic Blonde. Cipher herself isn’t given much attention, so let’s hope to see her more in the future sequel(s).
Though Fate is still kitsch and Ludacris-ly fun, this transition in its post-Brian time feels weaker due to changes of Gary’s direction. With an evolving ensemble of characters, cemented with cheese and badassery, F&F effortlessly appeals to a large demographic. It features massive action set pieces and finds its core idea in “family”, which persuades audiences to throw in their money. Considering what Dom, Deckard, and Luke Hobbs are physically capable of, if the franchise goes bigger, F&F may turn into a quasi-superhero sci-fi movie.
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