If nothing else, The Fate of the Furious will go down as the first film of the Fast and the Furious franchise to contain the phrase “disarm the nukes.” We have our pick of dozens of suitable moments, but I’ll pick that one on which to meditate on how far this film series, which was at one point about a group of street racers, has come. Eight films in, Dom’s crew is juggling not only nukes, but an EMP device and a Russian submarine.
That said, there’s no reason to be sentimental for the Fast franchise’s “roots.” If you like these films, the logic goes, you should want them to get exponentially more ridiculous. While I generally agree, The Fate of the Furious is the first time I really stopped to wonder if this course, which we can only assume has been charted to outer space, is in its best interest.
Fate is the first film in the series to be conceived after the death of Paul Walker, and the absence shows. Furious 7 gave Walker a fittingly misty send-off, which for all its tears was well within the boundaries of the films’ emotional palette. (This has always been an earnest series.) With Walker gone, you have to wonder if he was the mayonnaise of the Fast sandwich all along — not terribly compelling on his own, but a much-needed binder. These films live and die by the balance of the ensemble, and without Walker and Jordana Brewster, the equilibrium’s been thrown off. Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson are the undisputed stars of the series now, and they are the two slabs of breaded chicken on either side of this KFC Double Down of a series: proudly and conspicuously too much, and rarely in contact with each other.
Meanwhile, the action has become incoherent, largely past the point of enjoyability. The one exception is a sequence in the streets of New York City, in which hundreds of hacked cars turn into a swarm of zombie vehicles. At one point a waterfall of cars send themselves off the side of a parking garage like a rainbow of Skittles. The Fast films have always used their muscle cars as a more kinetic alternative to guns (though there are plenty of guns here as well). Now, they’re using them as bullets.
The Fate of the Furious’ new baddie on the scene is Charlize Theron, playing Cipher, a hacker whose technical prowess has been yadda-yadda’d into vague supervillain omnipotence. She blackmails Dom, now internationally known as the world’s most capable guy, into leaving the team and helping her steal some nuclear launch codes, so she can hold the world hostage and get everything she wants, whatever that is. Those eagerly awaiting Theron’s foray into the quarter-mile-at-a-time lifestyle could be underwhelmed; she plays the part in a barely modulated purr, like she’s auditioning to be the spokesperson for InfoSec Femme cologne. Despite Theron’s well-documented action chops, she barely gets into the physical fray, mostly just pacing around and lecturing the captive Dom about game theory, sometimes while holding a gun to his head.
The rest of the team is brought together by Kurt Russell, now with his very own charisma-free Scrappy-Doo in the form of Scott Eastwood. Within the core group, director F. Gary Gray has tweaked the EQ in Tyrese Gibson’s favor, continually turning the spotlight on the ever-excitable Roman’s puerile punch lines. But Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, now allied with the crew, gets the biggest upgrade here — including the introduction of none other than Dame Helen Mirren as his mother. Gray turns him into an all-out Looney Tunes lout, pulling reaction-GIF faces at every opportunity, milking every chance to antagonize Johnson. Statham is in full flower.
It would spoil too much to get into how or why, but the climax of the film involves Statham taking out a roomful of henchmen while toting around a baby in a carrier. I was reminded of the undersung 2007 action oddity Shoot ’Em Up, a brisk, self-aware riff on the tough-guy genre in which Clive Owen protects a newborn baby from an army of goons while chomping on a carrot. If that’s the direction the Fast franchise wants to take, it wouldn’t be the series’ first tonal shift. But The Fate of the Furious is so overloaded with muscle and spyware now (*cough* buy a Jeep *cough*), it’s hardly suited to attempt anything so nimble.
The film’s opening, however, shows promise: It’s classic Fast, an exhilarating street race in Havana that Dom wins by stripping down an old junker to its barest bones and giving it a flaming shot of NOS. It bursts into flames and crashes into the ocean after crossing the finish line, but I’d take it over Charlize’s frozen submarine any day.