If you look up “unlikeliest franchises” in the dictionary, well, you’re a fool, because that’s not how dictionaries work. But if they did, and if you did, the picture you’d see staring back at you from what has now become a picture dictionary of some sort would probably be of Vin Diesel grimacing behind the wheel of a car while flaming semi-trucks do wheelies out his back window. What started with the simple joys of street-racing in 2001’s The Fast and the Furious has morphed into the biggest and silliest film series out there.
After peaking with Fast Five in 2011 the franchise left that film’s perfect balance of beautiful, ridiculous action and entertainingly silly writing to tilt further and further into full-on, regrettably bland stupidity. The latest entry, The Fate of the Furious, continues that unfortunate decline even while implementing the biggest narrative shift since the series went from focusing on street racing to international heists. Don’t worry though, it still has something to do with family.
Two things happen half a world apart of combined significance. First, an EMP has fallen into the wrong hands, and the human face of the U.S. government’s black ops division, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) tasks Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) with snatching it back. In Cuba meanwhile, Dom (Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have their honeymoon interrupted when legendary hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron) secretly convinces him to switch sides and work for her. The team comes together to retrieve the EMP, but Dom suddenly goes rogue, steals the weapon, and sends Hobbs to jail.
The group, and the films themselves, have been increasingly about themes of family and friendship (and then a bit more family), but while this tight-knit gang has faced death before they’re now forced to accept that one of their own has turned against them. Cipher is their toughest challenge yet, in theory, but while she’s seemingly planned for every possible situation and outcome she neglected to take into account two things — cartoon physics and bad writing.
There’s no mystery in Chris Morgan’s script as to Dom’s about face — we see early on that Cipher is blackmailing him — so there’s no suspense in his or his team’s actions. The specifics of it come a little later, but rather than feel weighty in their dramatic implication it’s little more than a contrivance. Cipher’s grand plan is more in line with a Bond villain’s, but as cool and brilliant as she clearly is her decision to involve Dom and friends is both unnecessary and nonsensical.
Or at least it would be if the film took place in a world where not everything could be solved with a muscle car. The stupidity doesn’t end there though.
Why does the government once again need this ragtag group to save the world? Why not shoot out Dom’s car tires instead of relying on a convoluted system involving harpoons? Why is Letty still wearing her scoop-top tee-shirt in Siberia? And perhaps most importantly, are we really supposed to forget what (and who) happened to Han? I could go on, but this franchise has never been accused of being overly smart, and director F. Gary Gray’s (The Negotiator) entry isn’t about to change that now.
Instead these movies are all about the action (and family), so how does part eight compare? Not well unfortunately.
As mentioned earlier, even the action has been on a downward decline since part five’s high. The “stunts” have gotten bigger, but they’ve also grown to almost exclusively require those quotation marks around the word stunts. The abundance of CG involved, both in car chases and big set-pieces involving a nuclear submarine, negates much of the fun factor. There’s no personality to generic cars crashing and exploding, and worse, there’s no feeling of risk. Bad guys’ vehicles always blow up at the first scratch while our heroes can drive delicate sports cars through waves of gunfire and mayhem and continue functioning just fine.
The film’s action only finds its footing in the more intimate realm of hand to hand fight scenes. There’s still plenty of digital trickery at work here, but the fisticuffs — typically involving Johnson or returning baddie Jason Statham — offer up some exciting and stylish brawls. A prison riot sequence is good fun, although anyone who enjoys it should make an immediate point of watching SPL 2 and The Raid 2 to see it done far better on a far smaller budget.
Cast and character-wise, the film once again reveals guest stars and newcomers as being far more entertaining and interesting than the series regulars. Diesel and Rodriguez are lifeless lumps of flesh with zero chemistry, while Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris exist solely to crack jokes and fight over Nathalie Emmanuel as less important characters die all around them. Johnson, Statham, and Theron are left to carry the bulk of the film and fill its gaping charisma void, and it’s enough to make you wish they’d grab Russell and go make their own movie.
The Fate of the Furious is a bloated and dull film that’s kept alive by the thinnest of threads — fight scenes, an effortlessly charming Russell, the desire to make your own entertainment by counting how many times someone says “family” — but it’s also a strong case for ending the franchise before things get even worse.