What do you want from a Fast & Furious movie? The answer to that question will very much dictate how you feel about the latest installment, F. Gary Gray‘s The Fate of the Furious. If you’re simply here for the bulging muscles, scantily-clad babes, and excessive set pieces, then you’ll be satisfied with the eighth entry in the mammoth box office franchise. If you’ve spent the last sixteen years investing in the family and their ragtag tapestry, you might find yourself a little disappointed.
The Fate of The Furious picks up in Cuba, the latest stamp in the bursting passport of the international franchise, where Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are finally enjoying their long-delayed honeymoon. The first sequence kicks off with everything we’ve come to love from the Furious films. Dom finds out his cousin is in trouble and decides to settle things the Toretto way – street racing for pink slips and respect. Mano a mano. Winner takes all. The film is quick to tell us that Dom is racing the man with the “fastest car on the island” and in reference to the old Fast & Furious testament “it’s not the ride, it’s the rider,” Dom is driving the slowest car on the island. Naturally, Dom drives his car so hard the engine literally explodes and he races through the finish line on fire.
It’s everything you want from a Furious film, and when he emerges triumphant he’s such a good guy, he doesn’t even want the car. The respect is enough. Dominic Toretto, hero to children and men. This is where the film decides to flip the script, and in the process loses much of the franchise’s signature charm. Shortly after, on the streets of Cuba, Dom meets Charlize Theron‘s Cipher, a generic cinematic hacker with equally generic ambitions – she wants access to nuclear weapons to keep the word in some sort of check, and she demands that Dom help her acquire them. And he does, turning his back on the family he preaches more eagerly than his quarter mile at a time lifestyle.
For half of the film, the fun is trying to imagine what could possibly make Dom give up on his family, and credit to long-time screenwriter Chris Morgan, the ultimate reveal makes sense. It’s enough to make you buy it. Unfortunately, much else in the process feels overly casual. Theron is clearly having a blast, but giving her blandest, most mustache-twirling villainy, and once the details of the strategy are laid out, they don’t make a lot of sense. Especially anything Dom does in the process.
As director, Gray doesn’t have quite the knack for tracking action as his predecessors, occasionally leaving you lost in the fast-shifting heists and chase scenes, but he makes up for it with clever set-pieces and the best comedic beats of the franchise to date. Gray has done his job admirably with the character interactions, and audiences will have a blast oohing and aahing at the rapid-fire one-liners and banter among the crew. This is a laugh out loud film that gives most of the key players a moment of pure charisma, especially Tyrese Gibson‘s Roman, the in-house loud mouth coward; Dwayne Johnson‘s Luke Hobbs, the walking tank with a heart of gold; and Jason Statham‘s Deckard Shaw, who transitions from mortal enemy to a member of the family with unprecedented ease.
That’s where the film really takes a hit and seems to lose track of the undercurrent of family loyalty that has defined the franchise. Shaw burned Han alive and that’s impossible to forget and not nearly so easy to forgive as the film would like you to believe. Statham is given the best action beats (a third act set-piece steals the movie), and his rivalry turned bromance with Johnson is easily the heart of the film, but Fate of the Furious retcons his misdeeds with a far too casual dismissiveness. Worst of all, Han is never mentioned. Dom once said “words ain’t even been invented yet” for what he would do to Han’s killer. Turns out the words were “make him a trusted ally and invite him over for the family cookout.” In short, it doesn’t play. Statham is charming enough to make you root for him, but only temporarily until you remember the full extent of his guilt. Similarly, there’s a casual ghoulishness to the violence that’s never been there before. Death has previously been doled out in vengeance and to those who have betrayed the family, but Fate of the Furious fashions the family as mercenaries who kill alarmingly en masse.
Kurt Russell is back as Mr. Nobody, having the time of his life, and this time he’s accompanied by Scott Eastwood‘s Eric Reisner, aka Little Nobody, a by the books fella who’s “green as baby shit” and spends most of the film as a welcome punchline. The bits where they recruit the team — sans Don — to stop Cipher are some of the most enjoyable and charismatic in the film, including a wonderful “the killer is calling from inside the house” moment that has an electric thrill.
Ultimately, Fate of the Furious has some of the best and worst of the franchise, which makes it incredibly difficult to rate. The action sequences are conceptually clever, but they lack coherence, and though the final act follows suit with Furious 7 and borders on numbing chaos they are innovative spins on the nature of the Fast & Furious set-pieces we’ve come to expect. Gray is careful to weave in most of the hallmarks of the franchise: the action is next-level, the cars are sexier than they’ve ever been, and he elevates the character interactions to unprecedented heights of charm and comedy. However, the film sorely misses the mark on “family,” the concept that has become not only the catchphrase of the franchise but the backbone that unites it in spite of logic, gravity-defying nonsense, and inordinately complicated timelines. We’ve seen what this machine looks like when it’s running at peak performance, and Fate of the Furious is something that is close but so far away.
The Fate of the Furious enters theaters Friday, April 14.