Bigger is supposed to be better, and, on the surface, that appears to be true of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Each installment has a more ridiculous action set piece. Last movie, it was cars speeding through the window of one Abu Dhabi skyscraper to crash into the window of a neighboring one. This one has Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson grabbing a torpedo with his bare hands and altering its course on top of a frozen lake.
There’s no shame from the filmmakers with these outlandish scenes. Nor should there be! The Fast and the Furious is basically a different kind of superhero franchise, in which the avengers are a diverse group of lower-class nobodies who overturned the system to achieve the American dream. This franchise has single-handedly replaced the bar for what action movies should be going forward, so why should the filmmakers adhere to arbitrary rules about what they can or cannot do? Why shouldn’t they construct a heist in which the main gambit is strapping a ten-ton safe to two Dodge Chargers and careening through Rio?
That scene of kinetic bliss is from 2011’s Fast Five, which might be the purest iteration yet of the Fast/Furious saga. It featured Johnson’s introduction and Vin Diesel’s Dom recovering from the apparent death of his long-time girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). It was the first time the Family as we know it today was all together- Johnson’s Hobbs, Diesel’s Dom, Paul Walker’s Brian, Ludacris’s Tej, Tyrese’s Roman, Jordana Brewster’s Mia, Sung Kang’s Han, and Gal Gadot’s Gisele, minus Letty, of course, though her presence was very much felt. Five is where the series’ concept of Family truly solidified and became the fulcrum for every plot twist and car chase thereafter.
The Fate of the Furious (the eighth in the run that started with 2001’s relatively minor The Fast and the Furious) actually mirrors Fast & Furious 6, in which Letty returns with amnesia and is working against Dom’s crew. This time, however, cyber-terrorist Cypher (Charlize Theron) has turned Dom against his people. Pleas of “But family!” seem to mean nothing to him, and the Toretto crew has to team up with Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, introduced in Furious 7) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, the last movie’s villain) to track Dom down.
Cypher is an effectively cold-hearted villain with a terrible plan for Dom, and the estrangement between him and Letty is genuinely hard to watch. Furious 7 is the emotional peak of the saga, due to the perfect way the filmmakers handled honoring Paul Walker after his tragic death. This movie can’t compare to that, but what could?
Even so, it does seem like this franchise may be wearing out its emotional heft, after a trio of movies in which the “Family” trope became something almost real. In Fate, deaths in the Family lose some of their power. One member’s passing feels like a mere plot point, and Han’s death in Fast & Furious 6 becomes something of a loose end with the team embracing Shaw, who murdered Han as revenge for the Family putting his brother in a coma. Shaw’s induction into the team seems a little too easy and takes you out of the movie. However, it sounds like the filmmakers may address justice for Han later.
Nevertheless, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) has made The Fate of the Furious a thrill ride, and, even with my above questions, exploring the grief induced by Dom’s betrayal only strengthens the Family’s 8-movie history. The box office returns on this one have been lower than Furious 7’s, which produced a lot of hand-wringing by pundits about diminishing returns. There has also been a lot of hand-wringing from critics about a dip in quality. I saw one critic that I respect (and he’s not alone in this) saying Fate might even be the worst of the series, which is pretty much impossible when the series includes Tokyo Drift.
Even if this one is not quite as good as the last one, so what? It’s the eighth movie of a supposed ten in a franchise that has so far spanned eighteen years and will likely extend five more. The Fast and the Furious has already written cinematic history with its box office records, its diverse stars, and with the worldwide ardor it has received. If they want to make two more movies of controlled chaos that are utter garbage, more power to them. They’ve already changed the game. All I ask is that they stay true to this Family and that they blow my face off. For The Fate of the Furious, check and check.