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Question Club: Is Fate of the Furious driving the franchise in the wrong direction?

Fate of the Furious is about Vin Diesel, but belongs to The Rock

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Fate of the Furious.

Back in 2001, a moody, slick little $38 million action movie called The Fast and the Furious became a big hit, racking up more than $200 million in box office returns worldwide. A sequel was inevitable, but the series’s rapid expansion has been surprising, especially considering its unevenness and its gleeful, unabashed ridiculousness. From timeline-warping leaps to outsized stunts to its habit of converting villains to anti-hero buddies, the series has unabashedly embraced an over-the-top aesthetic where no twist is too ridiculous, if it’s played straight enough. What started out as a comparatively low-key, low-stakes action drama has turned into “the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but with cars.” The cast just keeps getting bigger, as the shoutouts and fan-service piles up, and the stunts have to get bigger as well. How do you top a team of cars parachuting out of a plane in Furious 7? Apparently by hacking a quarter of the cars in Manhattan into a fleet, aggressive remote-controlled army.

The eighth movie in the series, The Fate of the Furious, is as big as the world stage, and as gloriously, unapologetically dumb as its creators could make it. It’s also meant as a new start for the series, a recentering after the death of original series star Paul Walker, and the kickoff of a trilogy that continues its characters’ mutation from criminals in a soap opera melodrama to globetrotting, government-sanctioned action-heroes in a soap opera melodrama. In this edition of Question Club, we consider the series’s new and bigger look, and ask: has this gotten too fast or too furious for us yet?

Warning: Fate of the Furious spoilers ahead. 

Fast and Furious 6.

How do you feel about Vin Diesel taking over Paul Walker's place as the series’s heart?

Chris: I fundamentally disagree with the notion that Vin Diesel is now the heart of this series. I liked Diesel in the original film, loved his return after he skipped the second entry (and most of the third), and overall appreciated the relationship his “outlaw with a heart of gold” shared with Paul Walker’s “cop with a lead foot.” But Fate of the Furious has me second-guessing Diesel’s significance within this series, and wondering if Walker quietly did the emotional heavy lifting for the duo.

Tasha: If he isn’t the heart, who is? Fate of the Furious revolves around Dominic Toretto’s decisions, his big action moves, his angst over making those moves, and his emotional torment over the kidnapping of his ex and the baby he didn’t know he had. The film is fundamentally about his emotions, and about everyone else’s emotions primarily as they relate to him. Diesel’s character isn’t just the hero here, he’s the focus of nearly every feeling in the movie. Jason Statham’s character, Deckard Shaw, is the only one with an agenda that doesn’t really tie into Diesel’s in some way.

Chris: And then Statham literally gets an action sequence dedicated to saving Dom’s baby! The guy is set up for a big emotional beat, delivering the baby to Toretto, and Diesel, soaking in the golden sunset of the New York skyline, looks like he forgot all of this was over a kid. Could he not muster the slightest enthusiasm to be reunited with that kid? Instead, we get an overwrought Hallmark moment, and the hackneyed reveal of the baby’s name.

So yeah, on paper, all roads lead back to Dominic Toretto. But the film’s most affecting character moments — the stuff with real heart — were the updates on little rivalries within the group. Roman and Tej. Tej and Ramsey. Mr. Nobody and Little Nobody. And the Rock with everybody.

A lot of hay has been made about the rumored tumultuous relationship between Diesel and co-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (I believe it. The two can’t even pretend to like each other in the film’s phone conversations.) If anybody should be worried about this dynamic, it’s Diesel. The Rock’s relationships with both Jason Statham and Scott Eastwood (Little Nobody, the would-be Paul Walker replacement) are light, funny, and warm in a way Diesel can’t manage with anyone else in the film, including his love interest, Michelle Rodriguez. And The Rock just happens to be the biggest movie star on the planet. It’s not tough to see which actor the studio would choose if forced to make the choice.

Fate of the Furious felt like the series rediscovering itself, and surprisingly, Diesel felt like a guest star — even though the movie is all about him.

Does the movie's central betrayal work as a plot device?

Tasha: You know who absolutely hated that development? Our own Bryan Bishop, who said Dom’s willingness to turn on his family (the series’s absolute favorite word) “undermines the entire franchise’s thematic foundation.” But frankly, it worked fine for me. So much about this movie feels like a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon, especially the way all the major characters have to drive their own signature vehicles in the action scenes, even though that leaves them all simultaneously isolated from each other, and crowded up against each other as they try to maneuver all those cars around. These flotillas of vehicles charging into action recall old series like MASK or the original Transformers for me — cartoons expressly designed to sell as many toy cars as possible. Taken in the light of the film’s cartoony aesthetic, Dom’s faux-betrayal seems pretty fitting. At least they didn’t bonk him on the head with a coconut and have that switch him over to “evil” for a few hours. And keep in mind, this is a series that routinely brings people back from the dead. A major plot arc centered on one of the heroes contracting amnesia, becoming a villain, and slowly making her way back to the hero fold. This is a ridiculous, hyperbolic soap opera. “I switched sides because reasons” is pretty par for the course.

At least they didn’t bonk Dom on the head with a coconut

Kwame: I’m basically fine with the idea that Dom could be turned against his familia. I like the idea that Superman can be corrupted, and the movie’s twist being centered on Dom’s son with Elena (who we last saw at the very end of Fast & Furious 6) felt completely aligned with his values and the values of the series as a whole. What I didn’t love was the execution, and how out of nowhere everything felt involving Dom’s face-heel turn. I have a lot of trouble buying the idea that Dom would run Hobbs off the road, nearly blow up his whole crew, or leave everyone for dead on the streets of New York City in broad daylight without communicating to them that something’s up and he’s acting against his will. Instead, he reaches out to Deckard Shaw’s mother for an assist? Instead of making it an intimate, high-stakes drama, the movie just padded on a few more characters for the sake of a few callbacks. And in some ways, that’s fine. I recognize that this is basically a movie about taking action figures, sticking them inside Hot Wheels cars, and smashing them together. But the story could have been more effective if it were smaller.

Chris: Diesel’s motivations are so backward that I found him barely recognizable as his character from the series. Like Kwame said, his heel-turn isn’t just silly, it’s illogical. The plot gymnastics required to, first, give Dom a child, and second, make Toretto a willing accomplice in a nuclear-missile launch, are as exhausting as they are dumb. I agree with Tasha that this series is often at its best when leaning into its soap opera instincts. But the nuclear-war-leveraging surprise baby is so poorly handled that it manages to be, of all things, boring. And Diesel does nothing to help. He delivers lines with the passion of my laptop’s text-to-speech function.

Tasha: C’mon, whenever Diesel was frowning over having to nearly kill people he loves? He was emoting super hard, y’all.

Didn’t you see the sadness crease in the middle of his forehead?

But honestly, I think I would have bought the Dom-goes-bad plot less if they’d tried to justify it more, if they’d tried to make it some kind of small, intimate, personal story. This is a series where cars jump out of planes and through buildings. It’s a series where someone can crash his car in order to propel himself through the air just in time to catch someone who’s also flying through the air. In this installment of the franchise, a hated villain who outright murdered one of Dom’s crew is suddenly accepted as a buddy because he hates one of the same people they hate. Within the context of these kinds of outsized action beats, it doesn’t much surprise me that, say, Dom would understand that he can run Hobbs off the road, and Hobbs will come out of it physically fine. Sure, he goes to supermax super-prison, but his shadowy government buddies immediately deal with that problem — which Dom also had to see coming. Dom steps in to make sure Letty isn’t actually killed. He sets up an angle to rescue his baby, from a source no one is expecting, instead of his familia, who his blackmailer is watching closely and intently.

In other words, he does bad things, but he never does anything he considers permanent, or that his family can’t ultimately handle, physically or emotionally. It’s all big and silly, and it relies on crackerjack timing, nigh-immortal characters, and outsized coincidences, but those are all things that already exist in this franchise in large numbers. It stands to reason that Dom expected all of these things to work in his favor throughout the story.

Fate of the Furious.

How do you feel about Charlize Theron’s super-hacker villain character, Cipher?

Kwame: I think Cipher is the weakest part of the movie. The films haven’t ever had the strongest villains, but by the sixth installment, the crew was suddenly dealing with special-ops superhumans and god-level hackers. Because reasons. But these are James Bond / superhero movies with cars, so it was easy to forgive. But the idea that there was an even bigger and badder uber-hacker working in the background for years that we simply never heard about is a little too silly for me. If the movies want to turn her into some kind of Ernst Blofeld-esque presence, then I want a little more than Charlize Theron spouting terrible lines from behind a computer between explosions. I’d like her to have a more believable attachment to the world that the movies have established. That shouldn’t even be hard!

Tasha: When I first realized that was her character name, I rolled my eyes so hard, they detached from my optic nerves, and I had to get them replaced with cyber-eyes like Batou in Ghost In the Shell. (Oh wait, virtually no one saw that film, so that’s a lousy reference. Oh well.) My first thought was “Is there also a big tough guy named Bruiser and a smart, nerdy guy named Specs?” My first thought was “1992 called, they want their clichés back.” But Kwame and I talked about it, and he was the one who pointed out to me that 1999 called, and they want Joe Pantoliano’s character from The Matrix back.

Chris: Do y’all think critics have been a little easy on the Fast and the Furious series when it comes to its complicity with Hollywood sexism? I feel like in the past, the films got a bit of a free pass for the objectification of women, particularly the way the camera lingered from one butt to the next before each film’s obligatory street race. The two-pronged defense went something like this. “Ogling butts is part of the series’s DNA! And name another franchise with this many strong women!”

Charlize Theron is a brilliant actress stuck with a miserable character

I don’t think The Fate of the Furious rises to either of those excuses. This series can barely see its roots in street racing from the spy plane that delivers so much of the film’s exposition. And the female characters get nothing to do.

Tasha: The further the series goes into international stories with world-altering stakes, the more boring and juvenile the “Ooo! Lady-asses!” moments become. But I didn’t see sexism in the characterization this time around, just hand-waving narrative laziness. Elena’s use as a cringing, crying victim is ugly and pointless, and her whole plot suggests she’s a disposable brood cow — Dom and Letty contemplate starting a family, but they don’t have to go through the messy particulars, because Elena’s already handled that for them! Poof, instant family, with no messy strings or complications! Letty has nothing to do in this film but get rescued by Dom, and generally represent the family’s frustration and betrayal as Dom cheats on them with another family. It’s as though screenwriter Chris Morgan doesn’t know who Letty is when she’s not concussed and confused and evil. But don’t discount Helen Mirren’s brief, fun turn as a badass capable of slapping Jason Statham into guilty submission. And I’m all for women as villains, especially sociopathic supervillains.

Chris: But Charlize Theron is a brilliant actress and action star who is given zilch in this role. Her character is, without question, the least interesting villain in a series that normally nails its baddies. She’s a whispering parody of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible 3.

Cipher is emblematic of the film’s larger problem. The series killed off Gal Gadot’s Gisele and wrote off Jordana Brewster’s Mia. In previous entries, we had Gina Carano’s Riley and Ronda Rousey’s Kara beating the snot out of fools. In Fate, Elsa Pataky returns as Elena, and literally plays a plot device that exists to birth a child and get iced. Like you said, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty could be the heart of the movie, but she’s barely given a moment to emote, let alone discover any purpose. And Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey gets a big final laugh line — by pointing out that nobody knows a damned thing about her. I enjoyed a lot of this movie, but holy schnikes, the writers were so busy catering to The Rock and Vin Diesel’s contractual demands, they forgot to give the female characters a fleck of personality.

Fate of the Furious.

Is the franchise's increasing focus on international spy antics a positive development?

Chris: It’s fine for now, but I hope the series isn’t locked into the formula. Intentional or not, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh films were like an ultra-expensive experiment in genre. Tokyo Drift is a yakuza noir, Fast and Furious is a 1970s action thriller, Fast Five is a heist film, Fast & Furious 6 is a mishmash of James Bond and Mission Impossible, and Furious 7 is a superhero team-up movie. Fate of the Furious settles into a model, one that mixes the sixth and seventh entries into a proven blockbuster recipe. Maybe that’s good for business, but for me, it loses something that made the series special and unpredictable.

Tasha: Agreed. The series has been so all over the place that it feels deliberate rather than messy — almost like the rotating team of filmmakers are trying to prove that characters this broad and iconic can fit into any flavor of blockbuster. It’s like checking in on them every year or two to see what franchise the same group is cosplaying from this week. But the big “stop the submarine” action sequence from the end was one of the weakest parts of the movie for me, because the stakes stopped being about the people involved, and started being about some big abstract. Do we even know where that nuke is pointed, or how obliterating one city will get Cipher control of the world when she doesn’t have any other weapons as backup? Does anything happen in that sequence that feels like it involves real people instead of CGI? Were we really supposed to buy anything that happened to Roman, with his underwater car and its ice sled detached door? At some point, these movies have to stop trying to scale up to bigger and bigger sizes, because there’s nowhere left to go.

Fate of the Furious.

Is anything in this movie too far, too much, too fast, or too furious for you?

Tasha: I laughed out loud when Dom appeared in the middle of a heap of wrecked cars, hefting a shield and waving a weaponized circular saw around, like the most lost-in-time Mad Max combatant George Miller ever let escape off his set. That was pretty ridiculous. (Especially when the dude spraying him with bullets didn’t try to kneecap him, and just dutifully emptied a clip into the center of Dom’s shield.) The whole sequence at the end, where the nuclear sub bucks and steers like a mechanical bull in the back room of a bar, was laughable, too. But the only part that really bothered me was the car-harpoon (or carpoon) sequence, in part because it’s so visually muddled. As near as I can tell, Dom revs his engine and cars… just go flying through the air, because horsepower? I don’t care how many ponies you have under the hood, that doesn’t make other cars suddenly flip and fly. This isn’t a kung-fu movie.

Roman Pierce will never go away

Kwame: I’m furious we haven’t gotten rid of Roman Pierce yet. I know he’s there to be comic relief and an occasional audience surrogate, but I have so little patience for Tyrese whining about how crazy things are. You and your car got launched out of a plane in the last movie! Surely you know what the deal is with this team! Tej is funny. Hobbs is funny. We don’t know Roman. He’s barely useful in these situations anyway.

Chris: Kwame, I kid you not, the dude next to me could barely breathe because he was laughing so hard at Tyrese. Tyrese coughed, and this dude went into a full giggle fit.

Kwame: Okay, beyond my personal irritation, I was surprised at how lifeless some of the action scenes seemed. The prison breakout set piece was amazing, and I’d love to watch that again, but the zombie car sequence didn’t leave much of an impression on me. And then the whole submarine chase at the end was so long that I started to tune out by the time Dom switched sides. The drag race at the end of The Fast and the Furious was more thrilling than that finale.

Chris: Yeah, I second this. To return to Tasha’s initial comparison to the Transformers cartoons, I’d argue this movie, more than any in the franchise, worked like a collection of human-vs.-human fight scenes interrupted by magical robots disguised as cars performing borderline science-fiction hijinks. That’s fine and good, but at its best, the series blends human stunts with vehicular warfare. Remember the scene Tasha referenced, at the end of Fast and Furious 6, when Dom crashes his car into a highway median to launch himself into the air and catch Letty, who was ghost-riding a tank? That felt like peak Fast and Furious, and I haven’t seen anything like it since.