Feels like more of the same, a lesser retread: a showcase for flashy cars and a vanity project for its buff, aging stars.
F. Gary Gray, coming off of the strong Straight Outta Compton and the artist behind several of the best music videos of all time, would seem like the perfect director to take the Fast and the Furious franchise to the next level. The series started slowly with Rob Cohen at the helm for the original film and John Singleton captaining the second. But it finally hit its stride with entries four through six under the watch of Justin Lin (the less said about the third entry, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the better), and reached an emotional and artistic peak with James Wan’s Furious 7, which gave the late Paul Walker a tasteful exit from the series. Gray, whose work often serves as a vital showcase for the lives and concerns of non-white Americans, should be the perfect leader to usher the series into its next phase. Instead, The Fate of the Furious feels like more of the same, a lesser retread: a showcase for flashy cars and a vanity project for its buff, aging stars.
The film’s best choice is bringing Charlize Theron into the fray as the film’s primary villain, the cunning cyber terrorist Cipher. Though she’s given little to do outside of screaming maniacally over her keyboard and giving lessons in choice theory to Vin Diesel’s Dom, Theron significantly classes up the proceedings, doing more with a glare than other actors can with a monologue. Cipher’s actions make precious little sense, but Theron’s performance commands attention. And it’s hard not to root for Cipher a little bit by the end.
But Theron’s presence has its consequences. Many scenes pit Cipher and Dom against one another (dramatically rather than physically), and Theron’s deft skill makes Diesel’s roaring, wincing approach to acting look painfully weak. The reason for Cipher and Dom’s abundance of time together in The Fate of the Furious is the gas that drives the plot forward, a confusing twist that puts an absurd amount of the dramatic heavy lifting on the presence of a side character from previous films of the series, whose relationship with Dom is apparently enough to turn him against his beloved “family,” his team of supporting bad-asses.
The whole hero versus hero concept is lifted straight from Batman vs. Superman and Captain America: Civil War, and the reasoning behind it is even more convoluted than it is in those films, which is saying something. However, it does provide an opportunity for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Deckard to step into leadership roles. Their physical and verbal banter is one of the best parts of the film.
Other highlights include a delightfully trashy cameo from series fan Helen Mirren, an inventive prison fight, a bright and beautiful car chase through Havana and a fast-paced and funny plane rescue involving Deckard, a baby, a dozen henchman and an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” song. The film has other strengths as well, most notably its commitment to a diverse range of characters, both in terms of race and gender. It’s refreshing to see a blockbuster with such a diverse roster, and what’s particularly excellent about the diversity in the Furious series is that these characters aren’t just present for window dressing. Minorities are the stars, the comic relief and the romantic leads, and they have genuine backstories and personalities that are culturally aware without sticking to stereotypes. The film also passes the Bechdel test, which is similarly important and all-too-rare.
The action is good, though later scenes are so obviously green-screened that they’re a letdown compared to earlier, more seamless set pieces. Diesel gives good Diesel. The Rock gives great The Rock. And Statham is his typical smart-mouthed self. Other returning actors are given less to do, particularly Michelle Rodriguez as Dom’s new wife Letty and Nathalie Emmanuel as tech whiz Ramsey, though Tyrese Gibson’s Roman and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges’ Parker both get brief moments to shine.
There is definitely enough quality on display to make The Fate of the Furious worth a watch, but it could have been so much more. With such a well-known director at the helm and so much talent in front of the camera, the fact that it is just an average entry in the series is a big disappointment.