Over the past 16 years, the Fast and the Furious franchise has undergone a remarkable transformation. As if it were bitten by an irradiated spider, it’s transmogrified from a young, scrappy series about Los Angeles street racers into a globe-trotting spy adventure that has more in common with Roger Moore’s James Bond films than with its own humble origins. It’s endured director and casting changes and the tragic death of original star Paul Walker. And yet somehow, it’s became a legitimate cultural phenomenon, full of mind-bendingly excessive stunts, style, and plot twists, while still remaining strikingly earnest.
The Fast series is an action-adventure thrill ride, but the soap opera at its core is what makes the whole enterprise work, and the latest sequel, The Fate of the Furious, tests that dynamic. Walker is no longer part of the ensemble, Straight Outta Compton’s F. Gary Gray takes over directing duties from James Wan (who took over from Justin Lin), and Charlize Theron and Scott Eastwood inject new dynamics into the mix. It’s not so much a celebration of what’s come before as it as an awkward attempt to establish a new direction. But that direction brings considerable growing pains.
Warning: mild spoilers for The Fate of the Furious below.
The film picks up with Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) happily honeymooning in Cuba. After the trials, tribulations, and bouts of amnesia the couple have endured, it’s nice to see them getting a chance to relax — but Dom is Dom, and soon enough, he’s in the middle of a street race. (This time he’s driving a beat-up hunk of junk that he blows up mid-race, an early sign that writer Chris Morgan hasn’t lost the touch that’s made the series such ridiculous fun since he took over with Tokyo Drift.) But then Dom is ambushed by Cipher (Charlize Theron), a mysterious hacker with a penchant for Metallica T-shirts. She seems to have some sort of blackmail material on Dom, and she lays out how it’s going to go: he’s going to help her, and he’s going to turn against his own team in the process.
So is it Fast?
The series started out being about street racing, and to this day, the amped-up races, fights, and action sequences have remained a hallmark of the Fast franchise. They start with Dom driving an exploding car, and just get more absurd from there. Literally hundreds of vehicles get destroyed in a self-driving car set piece, the crew learns of Dom’s treachery in the middle of a high-speed escape involving the return of Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw takes part in a gunfight that becomes one of the most ludicrous things the franchise has ever attempted.
But in spite of the action antics, the series feels more pedestrian this time around, in spite of the trailer scene where Hobbs redirects a missile with his bare hands. This is a franchise that has previously featured Dom and Brian jumping sports cars between and through skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. It had Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) tearing each other down while driving parachuting cars. The Furious films have set the bar for insanity so high, even when the crew faces off against a nuke-powered submarine, it barely moves the needle. There isn’t necessarily a ceiling on the mad antics Dom and his crew can get into, but the series has set expectations impossibly high. To keep upping the ante, the creative team will have to go further than anyone thinks they should. I don’t care what Chris Morgan says, I still see Dom in outer space before this whole thing is over.
But is it Furious?
The series’s ability to repeatedly jump the shark and get away with it isn’t simply a matter of Morgan dreaming up mad moments during the writing process. The films are about style as much as anything else. It’s no coincidence that the franchise stalled out after its second sequel, and its modern ascendancy only began once director Justin Lin stepped in for the third installment, infusing the film with his dynamic camerawork, white-knuckle action blocking, and impeccable flourishes. Lin’s visual prowess elevated the entire franchise, and over time, it became the essential counterpoint to the series’s most outrageous pyrotechnics.
James Wan ran with that same energy and approach in Furious 7, which meshed seamlessly with the films before it. (And hey, if he lifted that “camera locked to an actor while they spin vertically” move from Looper, so what.) But Gray is a different kind of filmmaker. Even in action films like The Italian Job, he’s demonstrated that he excels in capturing the grounded rather than the absurd, and the change is noticeable throughout the film. Fate only has one real visual flourish — re-timing the action into slow-motion, then back out — and that move has been so overused for so long, it feels like Fate was shot in 2007 instead of 2017.
Gray’s prosaic style robs Fate of the Furious of any real sense of self-awareness or humor, which could never be said about Lin or Wan’s installments. And frankly, a franchise this ridiculous needs a bit of wink-and-nod, or it becomes just another boneheaded blockbuster. The evolution of the Fast and the Furious franchise has been so much fun to watch because it’s been manifestly aware of its transformation into a live-action comic book. The filmmaking style has been part of a tonal whole, and without that element, Fate actually becomes boring.
Well, what about family?
Strip away the camerawork, chases, and parachuting vehicles, and you’re left with the family theme that’s driven the series ever since Morgan and Lin soft-rebooted it with 2009’s Fast & Furious. The love story between Dom and Letty, the sacrifices enemies-turned-brothers Brian and Dom made for each other, the way Roman and Tej squabble like siblings but back each other in a fight — these personal connections are the films’ ultimate focus. That’s been a broad, melodramatic element at times, but there’s never been a question about what note the films have been striking. That’s why the coda to Paul Walker in Furious 7 was legitimately moving, something a series about muscled-up dudes driving muscled-up cars normally isn’t.
More than any other element, that core idea takes the biggest hit in Fate of the Furious. To discuss why, I’m going to have to talk about Cipher’s reveal, which comes about halfway through the film. This isn’t a big one in the grand scheme of things — most viewers will guess it long before it emerges — but family doesn’t let family read spoilers without a warning.
You ready? Okay.
It turns out that Cipher has discovered that Dom has a son he doesn’t know about, stemming from his relationship with Elena earlier in the series. To protect his son from her, Dom will do anything — including turning against his friends and Letty. At first blush, it’s easy to see how the filmmakers think this works within the world of the series: who can be more “family” than Dom’s own flesh and blood?
But in practice, it shreds the series’s sense of self, and Dominic Toretto’s status as a principled character. He doesn’t secretly go to Letty for help, or backchannel Hobbs or Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody for a possible assist. Instead, he simply, easily decides to screw over Hobbs, Roman, his wife, and the rest of the people he’s been fighting alongside for the past seven movies. So Fate doesn’t promote family above all else. It seems to be arguing that people should never have emotional attachments of any kind, because they’re just weaknesses that can be used to harm and manipulate people on both sides of the relationship.
The idea of a “Bad Dom” must have been delicious when the film was being conceived, but in practice, it undermines the entire franchise’s thematic foundation. (Laugh all you want, I’ll be here when you’re done.) The filmmakers attempt to square this particular circle by having Dom bring new members into his extended family to help him out of his jam. In this case, it’s Deckard Shaw, but that doesn’t play, either, because before giving any of his own friends a chance to help, Toretto instead turns to somebody who killed his friend Han earlier in the series.
The fact that the shift stands out in the first place speaks to how slyly effective the other films have been in establishing a reliable, consistent world. There are certainly ample storytelling opportunities in the idea of subverting that world. But sequels have to honor what they’re building upon, or risk losing their existing audience. When Fate of the Furious fumbles such a fundamental element, it points to trouble, particularly as the series drifts away from the Justin Lin installments that turned it into a global success story. This franchise has died before, and enough installments like Fate of the Furious could kill it again.
So perhaps the best way to think of Fate of the Furious isn’t as a letdown in a long-running series, but simply as a new beginning. Diesel has said repeatedly that Fate represents the start of a final trilogy, and with newcomers like Eastwood joining, it’s obvious the creators are lining up the pieces for the supposed final two rides. It could be that this new trilogy simply won’t be as fun as the films that have come before, and that it isn’t intended to be. It could be that the series has decided to tackle issues like parenthood because it thinks it can wrap these sober concepts in the guise of high-octane chases and fistfights. This may be all intended.
But me? I’d still rather see Dominic Toretto in space.