Furious 7 was always going to be a tough act to follow, and there’s a sentence you’d have been hard-pressed to write with a straight face a decade ago, when the Furious franchise was rapidly Tokyo Drifting its way into near-collapse. Not only was it a massive success, and one of the highest-grossing films of 2015, but it was also oddly well-regarded for a movie that prominently featured Vin Diesel jumping a supercar between three skyscrapers in Dubai. It managed to strike a tone that more and more modern action films chase, but fail to reach; it was ridiculous and yet just a little bit poignant, excessive while also welcoming the audience, as if to say “we get it, and we know exactly what you want from these, so here we go.”
Since Fast Five, the series has committed itself to increasingly elaborate stunts that push the plausible boundaries of what can be done with car-based action as a loose framework. The Fate of the Furious continues that escalation, and raises the stakes to the point where it often bears little resemblance to the street-racing humble beginnings of the franchise, or even the terrorist hunting of the past few movies. Fate is a spy thriller about mercenaries whose specialties happen to involve vehicular stunts, and as part of a whole, no Furious film to date has felt less like a part of the franchise. For some, it’ll scratch the itch of wild, sandbox-style action that’s become the series’ house style. For others, that ramp and that shark have never loomed closer in the oncoming distance.
As is custom, The Fate of the Furious picks up with Dominic Toretto (Diesel) living the quiet life he tends to enjoy between periodic fits of car-fueled mayhem. He and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are now married, and on their honeymoon in Havana, because Hollywood can now finally shoot movies in Cuba and we’ll probably be seeing quite a bit of this over the next few years. After an opening street race, which meets the mandated quotas of 1.) actual street racing in a Furious movie and 2.) Dom earning the grudging respect of his opponents by doing impossible things with his car (in this case, over-igniting the engine long enough to win the race, as it bursts into flames), it seems as though things are going as ideally as possible for a clan of international thieves who’ve been on and off global “most wanted” lists for several films now.
But all is not as it seems, which is cemented as soon as Charlize Theron shows up in Havana to inform Dom that he’ll be working for her now. As Cipher, a name written by longtime series scribe Chris Morgan with what we have to believe is a knowing wink, Theron is one of those movie hackers for whom “hacking” is a catch-all category for being able to do just about anything with a computer. To wit: Before the film ends, Cipher will hack a legion of smart cars, every accessible camera in New York City, a Russian military base, a nuclear submarine, and the plot device that drove all of the action in Furious 7.
Most importantly, though, Cipher also hacks Vin Diesel’s heart. Or at least it appears that way, after an early operation led by Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) ends in Dom suddenly betraying The Family and leaving Hobbs implicated in the grand theft of an EMP capable of wiping out an entire city’s electrical grid in one blast. Soon Letty and the rest of the team (Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel) are left to occupy Interpol’s top 10 most wanted list, Hobbs is locked away in an alleged “ultra-security” prison, and the whole family is forced to question where the paterfamilias’ loyalties truly lie.
At least in theory. While it’s probably a fool’s errand to get too deeply bogged down in the plot machinations of a film that eventually comes to involve rogue nuclear missiles, the Furious movies invite such criticism given how slavishly all installments, Fate included, have maintained a basic internal continuity between movies. Fate is built around the phenomenally implausible idea that Diesel has become the villain of the series in its eighth outing, and the belaboring of this melodrama ends up working against the film at times. Not only does Fate spend far too much time on the endless mechanics of tracking Cipher and Dom, but its story of betrayal ends up giving much of the film a dour tone, compared to the appealing looseness of the recent entries. The stretches between action scenes haven’t felt so long in a Furious movie in some time, and Fate tends to unfavorably recall the tedious amnesia story of the fourth installment throughout.
Fate works a lot better when it can step away from its grim moments and do what the series does best: milk its cast’s still-effective banter between excessive setpieces. “Excessive” isn’t a negative when it comes to these movies, and the latest offering has a handful of standout action scenes, even if the movie around it isn’t entirely up to snuff. The most satisfying arrives when Theron hacks a legion of cars and sends them careening through New York City, and for as blatantly CG as the eventual pile-ups are, there’s an immense satisfaction in seeing the central crew weave their way through an increasingly absurd wave of unmanned cars as Cipher sends them crashing through the streets and out of elevated parking garages.
F. Gary Gray, in taking over for James Wan, frames the action in the spirit of his predecessors, and keeps it preposterous. If anything, Gray pushes the series’ logical boundaries even further, spiraling into full-fledged ‘90s James Bond territory by the time the film’s grandbig finale arrives. Gray works in a riot of styles, switching his approach rapidly from shaky handheld photography (particularly during a prison escape sequence full of hand-to-hand combat) to massive panoramas of his exotic locales to a wealth of speed-ramped shots that are engaging once or twice and dulling after the tenth instance or so. Gray’s work is appropriately flashy, but less cohesive overall, and aside from his confident handling of the film’s lengthy final symphony of explosions, there are fewer overall sequences that meet the series’ established highs.
Given that Fate puts so much of the emphasis back on its characters, it’s a relief that the performances generally land well. Rodriguez does good work in a slightly bolstered role as Letty has to negotiate the perils of a life without Dom, and Johnson continues Hobbs’ evolution into a full-blown cartoon character, in the best and most Dwayne Johnson ways. Since Diesel’s usual charm is hidden beneath a stoic glower this time around, Johnson is tasked with serving as the film’s chief entertainer, and he settles into the role with ease. It’s proof that if the series does indeed continue in the direction of centering Hobbs as its co-top player, the actor’s natural magnetism will only benefit it. (Diesel does what he can, but Fate slots him right back into the one-note mode that undercut him in his earlier appearances.)
Not every performance fares so well. Kurt Russell’s blustery work as the shadowy government head Mr. Nobody hits the same notes as it previously did, to diminishing returns, and Scott Eastwood is a virtual non-entity as Mr. Nobody’s overeager new sidekick; the poor man is actually credited as “Little Nobody.” Most underwhelming is Theron, who does what she can to enliven what’s otherwise a disappointingly expository role. While there’s some quality material here for anybody who can appreciate some old-fashioned bad hacker movie lingo (“There are over a hundred cars here!” “Hack them all”), Cipher is as her name suggests, less a character than an obstacle to be conquered by the power of family.
For as often as “family” is invoked throughout Fate (seriously, that drinking game could probably kill a horse), the film struggles throughout to capture the balance of sentiment and action that audiences have come to covet. The frantic, rushed pacing allows less time for the character moments to breathe, as the team is reassembled with little fanfare and some of the bigger revelations struggle to land with the impact Gray is clearly after. (Some do work, particularly those focusing on Jason Statham’s swaggering reprise as criminal-turned-involuntary family member Deckard Shaw; the actor is given both a meatier backstory and the film’s funniest, most distinct action sequence.) But for all of Fate’s callbacks and fan service, there’s something mercenary about this latest edition. At points, the movie feels less like a logical continuation than an obligatory series of hurdles to clear to get to number nine. Even though the film absolutely picks up steam in its back half, its 136 minutes sometimes drag even as the film jumps from one Big Moment to the next.
It’s hard to imagine how much further the franchise can go from here, even as it’s become a biannual exercise in unbelievable visual dares. It’s still shy of a true collapse, Fate is still a better film than any of the first four entries, and the cast’s seemingly authentic repartee continues to go a long way in maintaining the series’ charms. But with each passing movie, the Furious movies are starting to lose more of their identity, to the point where even the once-sweet notions of family at the center have started to feel more and more like buzzwords. Its outsized action and bombast will deliver the goods for many, but it’ll hardly be a surprise when others leave feeling like something’s missing. Even as Fate has its fun and chases its highs (a few of which are pretty satisfying), it’s hard to shake the growing sensation that the bloom might be coming off the rose.