It remains baffling that a terrible movie like 2001's The Fast and the Furious could beget a few equally terrible sequels before suddenly transforming into one of the most profitable franchises of all time. As a matter of fact, it's about as baffling as the primary characters graduating from street-racing reprobates who steal DVD players to skilled mercenaries saving the world from nuclear weapons. The Fast & Furious series probably should have been retired after 2015's Furious 7, especially with star Paul Walker tragically dying halfway through production, but its $1.5 billion box office gross guaranteed further sequels. The start of a proposed new trilogy of Furious pictures, 2017's The Fate of the Furious provides what fans are after: cars go fast, there are explosions, tone-deaf rap is blasted on the soundtrack, the scale is enormous, and credulity is strained to breaking point. However, unlike the leaden Furious 7, this seventh sequel actually manages to provide exactly the type of high-octane, entertaining action ride that it promises on the tin, despite its many flaws.
While honeymooning in Cuba as he contemplates starting a family with his main squeeze Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is visited by powerful cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into turning against his "family." DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) recruits Toretto and his crew to retrieve an EMP in Berlin, but the now-rogue Dom betrays the team after the extraction, stealing the weapon for Cipher and promptly disappearing. The act leaves Dom's crew - including Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Tej (Ludacris) - bewildered that their faithful leader has ostensibly betrayed them. Enter covert government operative Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his offsider, Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), who enlist their help to track down Cipher and Dom, and stop a nuclear war. For extra muscle, Mr. Nobody also recruits former enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who wants revenge against Cipher.
What distinguishes Fate from prior instalments in the franchise is Dom going rogue, effectively reducing him to a supporting role (and keeping him as far away from The Rock as possible...), which provides a welcome break from the standard Fast & Furious formula. However, this aspect of the storyline is a bit of a letdown on the whole. See, it's made explicitly clear from the very beginning that Dom is being manipulated against his will, taking away any sense of intrigue or gravity that the story arc might have otherwise provided. Dom's "family" are kept in the dark about his motives the whole time, but the reveal to the audience comes far too soon into the game. This is not Captain America: Civil War. Furthermore, it seems that returning screenwriter Chris Morgan (his sixth consecutive Furious sequel) still hasn't mastered pacing or dialogue. Outside of some uproarious macho bantering (which was likely improvised), dialogue is stilted and uninteresting for the most part, and blatant exposition is lathered on. This is meant to be a fun action blockbuster, but these movies continually insist on unnecessarily exceeding the two-hour mark, becoming bogged down with flaccid dramatic subplots that are difficult to care about.
Pointing out the movie's lapses in logic, as well as its proud defiance of the laws of physics, is about as futile as writing a review of a critic-proof blockbuster. Suffice it to say, The Fate of the Furious is a huge, expensive cartoon, though new director F. Gary Gray often manages to make it look just real enough to sell the illusion. It's easy to understand why Gray was recruited for Fate, as he gained experience with car action on 2003's The Italian Job remake (starring Statham and Theron), and he directed Diesel in the underrated A Man Apart. However, there's still far too much CGI in a franchise that was previously so reliant on practical effects, and there are a few "nuke the fridge" moments which will likely have audiences roaring with laughter. Of course, the flick gets creative with its primary action sequences - Cipher even creates an army of "zombie" cars by hacking into self-driving vehicles, and the finale features a fucking submarine because why the hell not? There's enough mayhem here to please loyal fans of the franchise, though it's hard to shake the feeling that all of the big set-pieces are car-related because of pure contrivance and obligation - it would be interesting to see the franchise branch out a bit more. (Also, why continue to use beautiful multi-million dollar vehicles like Lamborghinis for dangerous jobs when they're just going to be destroyed?)
It goes without saying that Deckard's sudden switch to the "good guy" side strains all sorts of credibility, especially given that Deckard killed one of Dom's guys, and Dom left Deckard's brother almost disabled. But at this point in the franchise, and with Hobbs' allegiances having already changed, you just have to roll with the punches. It does seem that the arrival of a new, worse bad guy means that the gang's previous nemesis gets an invitation to one of the "family" cookouts. Still, Statham is so much fun here that he'll likely win you over, and his magnificent solo action sequence during the final act stands as the best set-piece in the movie, even though it doesn't involve cars in any way. It is pleasing to see Statham being given the chance to show off his insane martial arts skills as he fights his way through dozens of nameless goons.
This series is no stranger to humour, but the studiously unfunny Gibson (who's still completely useless) is usually given most of the "comedic" material. Luckily, Fate does right by letting the likes of Johnson and Statham pick up the slack. These two are, after all, highly adept at comedy but are rarely given the opportunity to flex these muscles, and it's an absolute joy to watch their riotous bantering as the pair try to hold back from pummelling one another. Diesel remains something of a dead-weight at this point, and could easily be ditched in favour of Johnson, Statham and Russell. (A spin-off with all three would be very enticing.) As a matter of fact, Diesel is the only actor who doesn't seem to understand what type of movie he's in. Even the likes of Eastwood seem to be having a good time, but Diesel delivers his dialogue (including his bizarre pronunciation of the oft-repeated word "family") as if he's appearing in an Oscar-calibre drama. At least Tokyo Drift star Lucas Black is kept away.
As perhaps is to be expected, the absence of the late Paul Walker in the group dynamic is really felt, as he functioned as the necessary glue to hold all the other personalities together as a unit. Certainly, it was wise to exclude Walker's Brian O'Conner given the circumstances, but none of the other performers can replace him, and the group is without a solid anchor. Still, efforts from most of the ensemble are acceptable, with Johnson again showing why he's become such a huge star in recent years, and Russell making a good impression as per usual. Theron could be mistaken for a James Bond villain due to her hammy performance here, even sporting dreadlocks to top off the image. However, Emmanuel's Ramsey (carried over after her intro in Furious 7) has no purpose, and only serves to beef up an already crowded ensemble. On a more positive note, Helen Mirren pops in for a brief cameo, espousing a hilariously uncivilised British accent that will remind you why we all love her so much. Mirren's scenes are some of the most charming in the whole movie.
The Fast & Furious franchise reached its peak with 2011's surprisingly solid Fast Five, and it's only been downhill from there, unable to maintain the same level of quality. Still, the fact that this eighth instalment is watchable in any way has to be some type of miracle, and it's worth watching if you're seeking a fun time without any brain power required. At this point in the franchise, however, it would be far more interesting to see a Fast & Furious sequel which doesn't abide by the "bigger is better" adage, and drastically tones down the scale in favour of intensity. After all, movies like Bullitt, The Driver and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive didn't need $250 million budgets to provide thrilling car chases. (Plus, the original movie only carried a modest $38 million price-tag.) The Fate of the Furious may be enjoyable in fits and starts, but it's much too long and over-the-top, in need of some discipline. At least two more instalments are imminent, which is preposterous for a franchise as hit-and-miss as this.