For such an explosive and visually tantalizing action movie, it’s odd to consider that The Fate of the Furious nails the fundamentals and somehow fails to stick the landing. It’s hard to point to any one part of the film that does its job poorly, and yet the overall taste left in your mouth is one of only tepid adrenaline. Amidst all the jokes and stunts and drama, there’s a revelation that it all feels a bit too hollow.
It’s a shame, too, because the premise is one of the best of the franchise. Picking up after Furious 7 and the solemn and heartfelt departure of Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner, we find Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) living a rather idyllic life in Havana, Cuba. Well, as idyllic as it gets for them, dealing with low-key gangsters and somehow getting into scraps that end up being resolved in cross-city car races.
The same goes for Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), too, in fact. He is found living what feels like an homage/jab at his yester-career, which is actually done rather well and paints a far more poignant picture than Dom and Letty’s reintroduction. But that all changes (as it is want to do) when a mysterious woman named Cipher (Charlize Theron) shows up in Cuba to make a demand Dom simply can’t refuse.
Needless to say, that’s where we get the bit about Dom turning on family, and that’s also where we get the weakest part of the whole movie. While family had been a theme of the past seven films (and was actually the theme of Furious 7), it is more of a utility here. Family and relationships and obligations are tools to be used, chips to be traded. It’s a sentiment that is literally stated outright at multiple points in the movie.
And as monumental as it would seem Dom betraying his family despite him being the single strongest thread tying everyone together, it’s an event that is mostly glossed over. It’s presented as inconsequentially as possible. As soon as it’s over, the gang is back to cracking wise and throwing quips. The lightheartedness is appreciated in the somber and ever-present consideration as to why Brian can’t be get roped into this mess, but it certainly takes the wind out of the betrayal sails.
That’s kind of true of a lot of what happens. Several events that could otherwise be the foundation of entire other Fast and Furious movies are taken for granted. I’d rather not spoil any of them, but it’s safe to say that the several aggressive and wild tendrils of Dom’s past comes back to whip and beat at the door even though they’re presented as nothing more than your everyday turn of events. It’s both disappointing and confusing.
That being said, everything that occurs moment to moment is rather exemplary. Director F. Gary Gray puts to use his full, wide, and considerable talents to make sure the various tones work. Humor lands with subtle and impressive efficacy in the way of a Friday while action feels slick and easy despite obviously being the result of millions of dollars, tons of effort, and a fuckton of ambition à la The Italian Job. Any given scene could easily be called the most charming of the movie.
It all comes together towards the end when storylines resolve and Gray is free to go hog-wild on putting everything together in a blender, toss in a few military-grade canisters of kineticism, and turn it on motherfucking high. Between Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw laugh-inducing ass-kicking and a chase scene somehow more indulgent and eye-catching than the runway of Fast & Furious 6. Gray’s ability to know how to cut into action and not just for a reaction holds together this nonstop assault of action and makes it both digestible and enjoyable.
His chops hewn on Straight Outta Compton comes barreling onto the scene as well. With the prodigious acting ability of Theron, she not only makes a formidable antagonist but also manages to present the only cerebral threat to the crew that the franchise has managed. And it’s managed with more nuanced shades of menace (or as nuanced as a movie like this cares to get) that seemingly only Gray could handle.
The unfortunate thing, though, is that all of this rarely comes together in a smooth way. The tones often conflict with what is actually being stated or happening, especially when it comes to the crew having the time of their lives as their father figure is out galavanting as an actual terrorist. To the actors’ credit, they all pull it off with aplomb. Between Chris Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, and Johnson as well as the newcomers Scott Eastwood and Kurt Russell, they fully commit to the shtick. (All right, Russell is returning, but it’s his first time as a fun-lover.)
And for returning fans, there’s some extra jollies to be found. Seemingly permanent fixture of the series screenwriter Chris Morgan knows how to play up the pokes at the history of this franchise. Whether it’s throwing in cameos where you both least and most expect it or making sure references land with the appropriate amount of heavy-handedness, those of you that learned to ride or die long ago will be especially happy with where this particular entry goes.
Even outside of rabid fandom, it’s impressive how this once ragtag collection of underdog movies has grown into an international action thriller brand, dipping into superhero territory at times. And now it’s embarking in a new direction with the loss of Walker, which is also a loss of one of the best pairings in modern cinema with him and Diesel. It’s not as smooth of a transition as when Fast Five hit, but it certainly could have been a lot worse.
Final Score: 7 out of 10