The Fast and the Furious franchise has become one of the most popular pulp-action melodramas of all-time, with a convoluted international spy-caper smashed into vehicular mayhem. The eighth and latest film, Fate of the Furious, frantically shifts gears into emotional territory while leaning on the strengths of its leading characters rather than exposing their weaknesses.
The majority of people who follow the franchise are aware of a much-publicized “rivalry” between the series’ two prominent stars: Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson. Whether or not the rivalry was a publicity stunt in the vein of a pro-wrestling showdown, or the media is fueling a real fire (as of this writing, it’s apparently no longer an issue between the two mega-stars), is a matter of perception, and since we’re not hanging around the set of the movie, the only thing that is clear is that this macho-battle sets the tone for more Twisted Metal-video game-style action sequences.
The premise once again pits Dominic Toretto (Diesel) against the All-American Boy scout Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson); Dom betrays his “family” and once again assumes the role of a villain. Cipher (Charlize Theron) has her hooks in Dom, and the story presents the rationale for his betrayal with enough buildup to warrant an emotional response from the audience. The script’s reliance upon the audience’s emotional commitment to Dom proves clutch; the handful of outbursts and tough-guy one-liners from Diesel weren’t grimace-worthy, but rather, fit within the context of the plot and Toretto’s characterization. Diesel knows his character well enough to know that we want to see Toretto’s struggle rather than have it thrown into our faces, and his struggle with himself, Cipher, and his former squad is convincingly portrayed by Toretto’s stone-cold glare.
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One of the biggest critiques of blockbuster action films is that the villain is often the weakest character. In Fate of the Furious, Charlize Theron’s turn as Cipher steals the show. She is a believable hardass, and she is relentless. I believed that she was a true threat to Dom and company because she didn’t have to use any theatrical explosions to intimidate, but rather, used technology—in a clever fashion—to demonstrate her power. We have been lead to believe that Cipher is a formidable foe, and Cipher shows us why. While flashy style and tough words have been a trademark of F&F villains throughout the series, Cipher is a metaphorically cold, calculating machine that rationalizes immoral actions without a hint of regret or hesitation.
In Fate, Dwayne Johnson’s role seemed to be strictly fan-service, and I can see why he might have been angry with Vin Diesel over the script, if the rumors are to be believed. We get the archetypical hulk-up moments from the former pro wrestler, and we are given the “family” vibe through some brief, light-hearted interaction with his daughter. This is where Jason Statham seems to steal the spotlight that should have been Johnson’s; while exchanging clever quips back and forth, these two sworn-enemies develop some excellent chemistry on camera, but the moments where we see Statham without Johnson were even better, with stereotypical British-wit comedy and quick martial arts. Without spoiling too much, I can say that Statham delivered the most creative action scene in the film and made it fun it watch. At this point, I can live without seeing the Rock in another one of these films. Rumors abound that a scene was omitted after the credits—I won’t spoil the rumored content of that scene here, but the supposed intent of the deleted scene is a tease.
The rest of the characters were not left with much screen time, and were reduced to background characters. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) was poorly-written in this film; I am madly in love with her, and all of her lines in this film seemed to be repetitive: “That’s not the Dom I know”, etc, which leaves us with the comic relief characters, Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson). The comedic interplay between these characters has worn thin by this point, serving their weakest appearances in the series. The other computer-guru, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), seemed like a second version of Tej, and at this point, unnecessary. I think it would have been easy to write her character out of the story. Finally, Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) seemed to be a weak replacement for Paul Walker that (archetypical, law-abiding white guy—although the complexity of Walker’s character was developed over the course of the series) stealing valuable screen time that could have been better spent on other characters. With such a large cast, the secondary characters spun their wheels in this outing.
Despite how over-the-top all the action scenes are, Roman earned nothing but eye-rolls from me, and while we can argue that each character deserves their moment to shine, I am of a mind that these characters are expendable, by this point, and for the next two films, I am convinced that a few more deaths are one of the last tricks this series can pull off to guarantee the emotional investment from the audience.
Finally: the cars. The film opens with a fun racing scene that includes the obligatory booty girls, but the other two vehicular action sequences left a lot to be desired. Apart from the cool gadgetry employed by Cipher during these scenes —and the appearance of Toretto’s trademark black muscle car— I wasn’t impressed. Besides the fact that the film seemed to validate that Toretto is a legend when it comes to driving dangerously, I felt like these scenes were overlong and served to provide some screen time to the secondary characters with a few explosions, nothing more. The series has had far better car chases by this point, and I would like to see the next film stick to the basics instead of introducing another random, overpowered vehicle for the cars to contend with (drones, helicopters, airplanes, tanks, etc.). I suppose Dom’s crew still has to outrace a spaceship.
Theron, Statham, and Diesel were written well enough to make this one of the better entries in the series; emotional impact was not contrived, Statham dominated the screen every time we saw him, and Cipher proved to be the ultimate, uncompromising badass with a higher ideal that the series needed. The script could have easily demanded some ham-fisted emotion and more contrived “brotherhood” moments, but the story allowed the main characters to remain consistent, even when they seemed hopeless. However, like a sports car on a race track, F&F needs to shed some of the weight that’s holding it down so we can speed toward the climactic conclusion.