The Fast and Furious franchise is about so many things — like street racing and lower butts — but above all else, it’s about family. The overriding sense of loyalty to your friends, relatives, and Ludacris is the North Star of these movies, which is what makes the newest installment, The Fate of the Furious, such a fascinating break from tradition. Just as series leads Vin Diesel and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson famously feuded throughout production, their characters, Dominic Toretto and Luke Hobbs, turn against one another in Fate, as Dom is forced to betray his family. In theory, that real-life antagonism could have informed all of their onscreen encounters, ratcheting up the tension every time these two Michelin Men butt heads.
Instead, the movie seems jerry-rigged around Johnson’s offscreen fight with Diesel, awkwardly staging scenes and rejecting traditional notions of plant and payoff in order to accommodate two A-listers who clearly didn’t want to share the same set. If Johnson and Diesel had put their differences aside for the sake of realizing the film’s full dramatic potential, we could have gotten a memorable clash of the titans. Instead, what we ended up with is more like the small-screen feud between The Good Wife co-stars Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi, but on creatine.
In one key respect, the Diesel-Johnson feud is different than the one that shook The Good Wife: While neither Julianna Margulies nor Archie Panjabi has ever divulged the source of their enmity, Johnson took to his Instagram last year to blast an unnamed co-star for his bad attitude and habitual lateness, and TMZ went on to identify the culprit as Diesel. In nearly every other way though, the creative contortions Fate puts itself through will seem awfully familiar to anyone who’s both a fan of CBS prestige dramas and movies where the Rock complains his dick is too big for tight pants.
An unexpectedly pertinent refresher: After a rift between the characters played by Margulies and Panjabi at the end of season two of The Good Wife — and gossip that the two actresses couldn’t stand each other — they did not appear in another scene together until Panjabi was written out of the show in the season-six finale. Until then, Margulies mostly interacted with Panjabi over the phone or by using other characters as proxies, and even when the two women came back together for Panjabi’s final episode, it was reported that the scene was shot using body doubles and split-screen special effects, so that neither actress had to be on set at the same time as her foe.
Readers, they pull the exact same shit in The Fate of the Furious. The first scene between Dom and Hobbs is conducted over the phone, and in the next scene, as the whole team races to steal an EMP device, the movie skips the usual “here’s the plan” prologue that would have placed Dom and Hobbs in physical proximity, instead opening in the middle of the chase and leaving the bulk of the work not to the actors, but to their stunt drivers. (Even then, the action is choreographed in a way where Diesel and Johnson don’t share a shot.) The heist sequence culminates with a stunt: Dom goes rogue, smashes into the car Hobbs is driving to flip it, and then saunters over to the wreck to steal the EMP device while Hobbs is trapped helplessly inside.
This is a big moment for the franchise and a turning point for the movie. You’d expect to see Hobbs staring in disbelief at his friend turned enemy while Dom stares back, ruthless in his betrayal. Instead, as Dom takes the EMP, Hobbs shoots daggers at his former friend’s … legs. The shots featuring Johnson are so clearly edited to obscure Diesel’s stand-in that I even started to wonder whether an entirely different character had come to steal the EMP and we were gearing up for a twist reveal. At the end of the scene, though, as Johnson remains trapped in the car, we finally see both Diesel and Johnson as Dom walks away. It’s the only shot of the entire movie where the two men appear to be sharing the same space, though given the very specific staging, I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me they’d split screened it, Good Wife–style.
From that point on, Diesel and Johnson spend most of the film sulking in their separate corners. Diesel shares most of his subsequent scenes with villainess Charlize Theron, while Johnson gets his very own Lucca Quinn in Jason Statham, a presumedly more punctual baldie he can spar with like he and Diesel used to. And every time Dom pops up to clash with his former team members, Hobbs just kind of … vanishes. When Dom storms a secret base that his former teammates are huddling in, we get reactions from almost all of them except for Hobbs, who’s conveniently buried under rubble. Subsequent clashes in New York and Russia continue to read as though Johnson left the set every time Diesel entered it, and I won’t spoil the film’s final beats except to say that in a crucial scene where most of the characters must converge, the tricks to keep the two men separate reach their high point: In any shot favoring Hobbs, Dom’s back is to him, and in most shots favoring Dom, someone is obscuring Hobbs as he stands far in the background, facing away from camera so you can’t tell it’s just a stand-in.
All the work-arounds become sort of amusing once you notice them, but they cripple the film’s ability to follow through on its central conceit of Dom going rogue. Hobbs is the character Dom betrays first and most directly — flipping his car, stealing from him, and making sure he’ll be thrown in prison. Their next confrontation should be fraught as hell, and their final clash should be one for the ages. Neither happens. Technically, they don’t interact again for the entire movie. The only betrayed member of the team who gets any subsequent major moments with Dom is Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and while her character certainly deserves them, the film feels lopsided for never paying off the rift between Dom and Hobbs, its titanic leading men. Imagine a version of Captain America: Civil War where Captain America and Iron Man found themselves at odds but never shared another scene together, and you’ll get a sense of why Fate feels so unsatisfying.
Now that Paul Walker is gone, Dwayne Johnson has become the definitive co-lead of these movies, which use his masculine bombast as ballast for Diesel. But while the last Fast and Furious movie was able to cut around Walker’s mid-movie death and give him the send-off he deserved, this one can’t convincingly edit around its two still-living leads’ hostility. There are at least two more Fast and Furious movies to come, and Diesel and Johnson will presumably remain the pair most integral to the series. If they can’t find a way to bury the hatchet and give their characters the sort of scenes that loyal fans deserve, the franchise’s fabled quarter-mile is going to feel awfully long.