“Dominic Toretto just went rogue.”
Late in The Fate of the Furious, the 8th installment of the engorged muscle & muscle car franchise, Tej (Ludacris) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) toss off competing plans for completing the final leg of this oversized attempt to save the world. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) responds simply, with a line that could serve as a mantra for the film series as a whole: “we’ll do both”. Whenever a Fast and Furious film is given the option, at least ever since the dials were vaulted up to eleven in Fast & Furious, it lands on doing every possible thing within its grasp. That peaked in quality with Fast Five, when Justin Lin brought out a bank vault to bat around a highway like an aggressive and twenty-ton cat teaser. And that formula was thrown into a loop for the previous entry, Furious Seven. There, the question was “should this be an even more heightened grasp into the upper echelons of insanity or a moving ode to the late Paul Walker”? Even having to work in the latter half on the fly, the answer of course was “we’ll do both”. And they somehow, bombastically and, yes, movingly pulled the whole thing off.
Fate of the Furious is the first ride without Walker behind any wheel at all, and his presence is missed. They attempt to fill his void with another vaguely charismatic handsome white dude (Scott Eastwood), but he has none of the earned affection Walker managed to eke out over the years. Likely, whether or not the late actor’s character Brian was present, this work would be much the same. Unlike Seven, the plot doesn’t quite eerily parallel the emotional arc of tragedy (though Brian is name-checked twice here, once late in a very obvious yet still touching manner). Here, the “both” begins to balloon a bit too much, especially in a run-time that sags given how few genuine story beats there are to mine. The basics: Dom (who do you think?) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are enjoying their honeymoon in Havana. Unrelated to the newsworthiness of this being the first studio film to shoot in Cuba since the US lifted their embargo, this is best section of Fate. The color palette pops, outfits spelling out the rainbow and the camera jumping through lively neighborhoods. Dom, predictably but loveably, finds himself in the middle of a street race. If you’re wondering whether or not he’s defending a member of his family, you likely haven’t seen the other Furious movies.
That race is electric, utilizing its unique location’s narrow streets and bursting community. F. Gary Gray is less aggressive behind the camera, but don’t mistake that for the action in front of the lens being any less hectic. He’s just able to pause more, which ends up being a detriment as often as it is a boon. Here, in the opening sequence, it allows the race to have verve but also lets the audiences feel each turn and minor consequence. Once the cars reach the finish line, things have already grown absurd but only mildly so. This could have been the final sequence, say, of the early films, before the creative team found the beating heart of bombast that courses through the franchise like Cuban NOS.
From there, one lackadaisical morning, Dom runs into a woman played by Charlize Theron. She hands him an iPhone, he sees something and his blood runs cold. Suddenly, at the end of a brief mission in Berlin, he’s on the offensive against his own team. Now that team must stop him from whatever the woman, Cipher, has put him up to. It’s a fine hook, though a bit repetitive after the “evil Letty” tale of earlier films. But this isn’t amnesia or mind tricks. Instead, Furious is all about the notion of choice and what drives Dom (and, of course, what Dom drives). Sure, that’s a lofty idea for such a pleasure-driven series (Theron drops an axiom of Glasser’s choice theory, hilariously, at one point). But, as anyone could have guessed, the point of it all is really less about choice than it is about family.
The franchise’s greatest flaw, especially as it has grown in size and volume, is that the writers seem to assume portent is a necessary tool for making this world feel bigger and more consequential. That moodiness, especially here, ultimately comes across as a way to kill time between the massive, overwhelming set pieces. Few of the emotional beats truly land, especially (and perhaps unfairly) in the wake a movie with genuine scars to bear. Family is a great principle for the series to rest on, but the films work better when they express that through positive, warm gatherings of these individuals cooking out or lounging, laughing in garages. There’s a bit of that here, but just enough of the heart is missing. And that levity has been vital to balancing out both that overblown drama and the long stretches of cars swerving down highways. Or, as it is here, cars swerving down ice fields in Russia.
Those action sequences are even more core to the brand than the talk of family, if only slightly. Here, we’re given two main passages and each certainly has moments of sheer and unabashed thrill. A car chase in New York brings in a trail of hacked self-driving cars, which is a sword I’m shocked the series hasn’t already unsheathed. If you saw footage passed around the internet last year of cars toppling out of a parking structure and had high hopes, the moment lives up to the hype. But there’s so much fat around those pieces, so much excess surrounding the excess itself. The climactic rush through Russia is even more exhausting. Yes, the submarine emerging from underneath the vehicles is fantastic (a money shot that should never have made it into the marketing). But that thing drags, many of the punches and exploding cars leaving nary an impact. Boring is a puzzling way to describe a film that is nearly constantly throttling you by the neck, but it happens here.
Luckily, that particular chase is paralleled with a much more chaotically whimsical sequence that allows Jason Statham to embrace the pleasurable mania too many films trade away for gruff sarcasm. None of the other performances offer much that will be new to fans, through Kurt Russell remains a great additional personality as the elusive Mr. Nobody. Tyrese Gibson is often a bit too much, except when he’s rightfully clowning Eastwood. Largely, though, the greatest flaw of Fate is that for a film about family, most members spend too much time estranged from one another. It’s similar to the season of Gilmore Girls where Rory and Lorelai didn’t speak. Yes, it might be a bold narrative move, but when chemistry is key it’s a dangerous element to jettison. Some of that subtraction was out of their hands, and perhaps the rest was meant as a reaction to the loss. But when the frame has grown this large, and everything is stretched out to its completely illogical end some more time with the family would have been welcome. There’s little chance that the Fast & Furious franchise will minimize itself back to mere street races and electronics thievery. Yet now there’s just a bit too much of everything except heart. Gray makes sure enough pockets of the ride are a good time, but this outing feels like too many quarter miles at a time, without any Corona kickbacks to fill the gaps. Next time, they’d be better off doing both.