Hollywood of 2017 is all about franchises that blow past their natural ending points. But the Fast and the Furious movies had a different, more sombre type of natural ending point: the death of series mainstay Paul Walker, who had logged more screen time in these movies than any other actor. (Don’t forget that face-of-the-franchise Vin Diesel missed basically two entire movies.)
Money, however, trumps grief and doing the decent thing. So instead of closing up shop, what did Universal do? Replaced Walker with a guy who looks almost exactly like him (Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son), added two Oscar winners to the cast (Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron), and embedded this series even further into the mainstream of ongoing action film franchises. Despite bearing a title that sounds like a swan song, The Fate of the Furious feels less like it has seven movies behind it than that it has seven more ahead of it.
Which may not be an entirely bad thing, as this is the most fun entry since Fast Five and probably in the top two or three overall. Realism went out the window a long time ago with this series, and if you were expecting anything different you’ll be sorely disappointed. But the more this series has gotten in touch with the preposterousness at its core, the more fun it has gotten. If you stop for a moment to consider the utter absurdity of a bunch of San Fernando Valley street racers aboard a Russian submarine trying to prevent a nuclear missile from launching, you will laugh out loud – but hopefully in a good way. And if you think that’s a spoiler for The Fate of the Furious, you’re really missing the point.
Plot isn’t the point either, of course, but it’s customary to tell you a bit about it anyway. Drawn out of seeming retirement in some tropical setting (this time, Cuba) for at least the third time, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) falls victim to a scheme by terrorist hacker Cipher (Theron) to get him to do her bidding. She’s got something on Dom, and she wants him to put his implausibly effective combination of driving skills and spy skills toward stealing MacGuffin A (an EMP device) and MacGuffin B (a nuclear football) using MacGuffin C (the God’s Eye, a device from the previous film that can track any person on Earth, somehow).
This requires turning him against his “family” – probably the series’ most overused word – who are, naturally, the only ones who can stop him. If you don’t remember, that family includes the likes of Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, the aforementioned spawn of Clint Eastwood, and nowadays former villain Jason Statham, who got a taste for comedy in Paul Feig’s Spy, and brings another generous helping of it here. These characters all have names, but damned if I can remember them.
It works. Search me how, but it works. F. Gary Gray, sitting in the director’s chair for the first time in this series, brings a real sense of fun to this movie, despite a couple more of the heavier moments that have sprinkled themselves throughout the saga. (I’m talking character deaths, people, but I’m not saying who or how many.) By this eighth instalment, in fact, the mood has gotten light enough overall that it would seem more appropriate if the fight scenes involved non-lethal force, like one of the earlier incarnations of Batman. But no, a Russian baddie does indeed have to get chopped up in the propeller of a submarine. At least it occurs off-screen.
The fight scenes are actually some of the best in the series, most notably a prison break involving Statham and Johnson in which they mow through guards and other prisoners in the platonic ideal of that non-lethal force. The scene is scored to frenetic hip hop, and the whole thing just gets the juices flowing. The flow of the juice is really the reason to see any Fast and the Furious movie, but some of them produce little more than a trickle.
The movie, surprisingly, is. It delivers what you want from a Fast and the Furious movie, even if what you want is another reinforcement of its corny family values. And it’s got a sense of humour that goes beyond just the squabbling between Gibson and Bridges, getting excellent comedic moments from two tough guys who have discovered their taste for comedy in recent years. One is the aforementioned Statham, who has a hilarious fight scene involving a particularly precious piece of cargo, and the other is Johnson, whose introduction four movies ago might bear the greatest responsibility for reinvigorating this series after the turgid fourth movie, Fast and Furious.
With the Furious series getting Furiosa – Charlize Theron – and Helen Millen, it’s even going somewhere it’s never gone before: respectability. Rarely does legitimate talent start getting on board in a series’ eighth movie; at that point, they’re more likely to be fleeing the sinking ship. Or, in the case of The Fate of the Furious, the submerging submarine.
But submarines and wrecking balls and cars being controlled remotely by hackers and getting dropped off the tops of buildings (another good scene) indicate just how many more avenues are still possible in what once seemed like a dead end. It may not be particularly respectful to Paul Walker, but movie fans will probably keep eating up this stuff for a while to come, a quarter mile at a time.