Nobody would’ve guessed that 16 years ago a little Point Break knockoff about street racing would spawn seven sequels and slowly morph into one of the biggest action franchises in the world. Perhaps more improbable, the Fast & Furious franchise really didn’t seem to find its footing until its fifth entry, where the films took a turn to becoming the biggest, wildest piece of action filmmaking that wholly embraced the crowd-pleasing absurdity behind the all the motorized mayhem. With its eighth entry, you would think that the crew behind The Fate of the Furious realized that they have a well-oiled machine that they’ve tinkered and tinkered with until they created a beast that churns out money. That’s not quite the case with The Fate of the Furious, a sequel that delivers a couple of those crowd-pleasing moments but sputters too often to be a wholly satisfying entry in this high-octane franchise.
Opening in Havana, The Fate of the Furious reacquaints us with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) as he’s on his honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) after they’ve finally gotten married following a complicated relationship involving faked deaths and amnesia. On the streets of Havana, Dom and Letty admire the classic cars that line the streets, with Dom’s affable persona reminding the audience once again that he’s pretty much the greatest dude to ever walk the Earth. Director F. Gary Gray picks where James Wan left off with Furious 7 by shooting women’s derrières at low angles that might make Michael Bay blush. The tranquility of the moment comes to an end when Dom agrees to race a stranger who threatens to take his cousin’s car as payment for a debt. Racing across a one-mile stretch of Havana, Dom shows his skills behind the wheel in his cousin’s beat up car, pushing it to the limits as it bursts into flames as he crosses the finish line.
The next day, Dom is walking the streets when he encounters a mysterious stranger (Charlize Theron). She presents him with a cell phone video that is withheld from the audience. She demands that Dom betray his crew, his family, on their next mission. This is our first hint that things may not entirely be up to snuff with The Fate of the Furious. The identity, the objective, and whatever leverage she has over Dom is needlessly obscured and obfuscates what have typically been fairly straightforward stakes in the better entries of the franchise. It creates a situation where we know that Dom is going to betray his brethren and yet not know why, an attempt to create intrigue that backfires mightily.
During an amusing segment where we see Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) coaching his daughter’s soccer team with his sweaty intensity, we quickly learn what the next mission that the crew will undertake. They’re to travel to Berlin to secure an electromagnet pulse (EMP), a device that debilitate city power grids with a single blast. Hobbs, Dom, Letty, Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) team up to secure the device though we know that Dom’s betrayal is around the corner and that if caught Hobbs will wind up facing jail time – which is exactly what happens.
Shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, Hobbs is given a chance to get out of prison by the black ops master Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new underling Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), though Hobbs refuses due to his professed innocence. Directly across from him in jail is Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the villain from Furious 7, and the two exchange barbed insults at each other as they pine for a chance to exchange fisticuffs. Mr. Nobody orchestrates a prison break and both Hobbs and Deckard make it out, joining the rest of the team in his secret base where they’ll formulate a plan to figure out the identity and location of the mysterious figure behind Dom’s betrayal and find a way to heal their fractured family.
Longtime Furious screenwriter Chris Morgan tries to mix up the time-tested formula a bit with The Fate of the Furious and that’s where the film really runs into the most trouble. Withholding the reasons for Dom’s betrayal and the goals of the film’s villain run contrary to the absurdist nature of this action series. Charlize Theron is often scheming and menacing in the role of the film’s villain but you get the sense that Morgan and F. Gary Gray are holding her back in the hopes of expanding her role in future entries. More bewildering, they cast Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road and never allow her to get behind the wheel to terrorize the Furious crew.
When The Fate of the Furious finds its rhythm is later in the film during its two major action set pieces that revel in the absurd mayhem that fans have come to expect from the franchise. A crazed sequence of vehicular insanity in New York raises the bar once again for the franchise as cars go flying from every conceivable direction. The climactic set piece set on an icy plain in Russia features an assortment of crazed moments that defy physics but entertain nonetheless, allowing the colorful characters to shine through while they battle their nemeses. These moments are almost too late in the movie to truly save it, but they do capture the manic spectacle that we want from our Furious films.
The MVPs of The Fate of the Furious are Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham with an ample assist by an always captivating Kurt Russell. The contentious dynamic between Hobbs and Deckard creates a relationship that closely mirrors the one that started the franchise between Diesel’s Dom and Paul Walker’s Brian. Hobbs and Deckard constantly exchange colorful insults with one another, testing the limits to see how far harsh words can go before brutal blows. When it comes to the film’s big finale, it’s Statham who has one of the craziest sequence of events ever to occur in Fast & Furious lore, none of which involves a single car.
After three straight stellar entries, it was just a matter of time before the Fast & Furious franchise hit a speed bump. The Fate of the Furious does have its moments that deliver but it’s lacking in consistency throughout, and these are all issues that are unnecessarily self-inflicted. F. Gary Gray’s limitations with action filmmaking are present in a number of scenes and the film often has so many characters that it can’t figure out how to give them all something worthwhile to do. (I won’t elaborate further but it’s safe to say that Scott Eastwood’s character is aptly named Little Nobody.) When it’s firing on a cylinders, The Fate of the Furious proves that the franchise isn’t running on empty, but its issues certainly makes you think that the creative team of the series have tried to tinker too much with an engine that was running perfectly before.