It’s still somewhat improbable to imagine that a minor film series about street racing, all but left for dead by its third installment, has turned its fortunes around over the course of four succeeding films to become not just one of the most successful franchises of the past 15 years but a sort of combination superhero/spy saga. Only now, we have enhanced automobiles instead of enhanced humans. Thus here we are with the eighth chapter in the series, The Fate of the Furious, speeding toward us in spite of several considerable obstacles standing in its way: the first being the total absence of the late Paul Walker (the previous film, Furious 7, managed to include him despite his death halfway through production), and the second being the natural tendency of any long-reaching narrative to begin to stretch itself too thin.
That’s unfortunately the problem with The Fate and the Furious, which is directed capably by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) if less elegantly than how James Wan handled the previous outing. But Gray’s more anonymous shepherding of the material more or less mirrors the more generic nature of this particular story.
The last set of films, starting with Fast and Furious, reinvented the narrative to become the tale of a family of — for all intents and purposes — heroic warriors coming together out of the bones of a criminal enterprise. Whether intentional or not, it ended with that family in a complete, content, and settled place as one of its main leaders — Walker’s Brian O’Conner — walking away for good. Whether you were a fan of the overall series or not, Furious 7 felt like an organic conclusion to a story that had been building gradually over the course of the three previous movies.
But franchises are seemingly meant to be extended at all costs possible, so The Fate of the Furious takes the series into what I might call Moonraker territory; as with that 11th entry in the James Bond series, the sight gags, stunts, and action set-pieces veer dangerously toward the ludicrous, the humor teeters on the edge of slapstick, and characters are beginning to behave either in silly new ways or tediously formulaic ones. I won’t get into the details of some of the new character twists in this picture, except to say that they strain really hard against the evolution of these people that we’ve observed before (keep in mind, we’re not talking about characters out of classic literature here, but the series has certainly developed them enough, nevertheless).
The plot itself is skinnier than most: A cyber-terrorist (yawn…) named Cipher who looks amazingly like Charlize Theron in dreadlocks has a plan to hold the entire world hostage for reasons that are astonishingly vague even when they’re eventually explained. She needs a master thief to steal some things for her, so she recruits Dom (Vin Diesel) — who has no choice but to turn against his crew and go rogue because Cipher has something on him.
The rest of the movie splits its time between Dom and the regular crew (Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, and Nathalie Emmanuel, now aided by returning government mysterio Kurt Russell and his goofy new sidekick, Scott Eastwood) as they anticipate each other’s moves. The old gang tries to figure what the hell is up with Dom, and Dom looks for any advantage he can over Cipher.
This, of course, involves traveling to numerous exotic locales in the best Bondian fashion, including Iceland, Cuba, and, uh, downtorn Manhattan, with each setting hosting a spectacular set-piece or three. A bevy of flashy cars are on hand, of course, in addition to tanks and assorted other military vehicles, rocket launchers, drones, a tricked-out airborne command center and even a goddamn nuclear sub. Our favorite by far is a chase through the streets of New York in which every car on the street is hijacked by remote control, and the phrase “make it rain” takes on an entirely new meaning.
That line is delivered by Theron’s Cipher, a sadly cliched antagonist who is content to sit in her lair and either stare at screens or push buttons (what a waste of an action star, especially coming after Theron’s fiery physical presence in Mad Max: Fury Road and seeing what she does in the trailer for Atomic Blonde) while engaging in threatening toe-to-toes with Dom. As for the latter, he’s more or less frozen in place as an actor, letting his muscles and rumbling voice do all the work for him these days. The honors for best acting in the film go to Johnson and Jason Statham, who strike up an easy and funny banter that I could easily see spun off into a film of its own, should we ever have an FFCU (Fast and Furious Cinematic Universe).
The rest of the crew go through their paces, deliver the lines and attitudes expected of them, and get increasingly little to do as the focus remains squarely on series linchpins Diesel and Johnson (who interestingly do not appear together in a single shot in the film, adding fuel to the stories about the two feuding on the set), with Statham ascending in the ranks as well. There are also a handful of surprise appearances and cameos, but they add little to the storyline and feel perfunctory at best.
In fact, “perfunctory” is probably the best way to describe The Fate of the Furious. There is a lot to like for longtime fans, from the cast chemistry to the stunts, to the gadgets and vehicles. All the necessary elements are in place — the family bonding, the wild action sequences, the macho posturing, even the trademark establishing shots of scantily clad women nestling up to thrumming automobiles — but this time it’s starting to feel like everyone and everything is going through the motions.
It’s also difficult to see where the increasingly over-the-top series goes from here. Either it retreats to a smaller, more intimate story again (street racing!) or it finds a way to reinvent itself for what will allegedly be its last two chapters. Let’s just hope that the fate of the franchise is not to go out on an empty tank, rolling dejectedly to a slow, disappointing stop.
The Fate of the Furious is out in theaters Friday (April 14).