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Film Review: The Fate of the Furious, Stuck in Second Gear

Photograph courtesy of Universal Pictures

So what did I learn from The Fate of the Furious (installment eight of The Fast and the Furious series, in case you’re counting, which you know you are)? When you run out of bad guys, make the good guy a bad guy. And then make the previous bad guy a good guy. Then add a new bad guy in case the bad good guy isn’t bad enough, and the retroactively make that bad guy the secret bad guy for the last couple of movies. Some portions of this pretzel-logic formula have already been used in this series, but with far more characters to keep track of today, there is something to be said for how much more high stakes Fate feels at times.

But that overriding sense of dread is an illusion that the franchise won’t be able to keep faking. If we feel confident that none of the major characters might lose their lives, the films lose a great deal of their appeal or dramatic intent. And trust me, these films can stand to kill off a character or two. Hell, even the characters they trimmed from the last film (one of whom was Brian, played by Paul Walker, who died during filming) they didn’t kill off; they just sent them away to live a life away from fast cars and outlandish heists. And by hiring higher-profile actors to play the villains—Luke Evans, Jason Statham, and now Charlize Theron—they can’t even dispose of their baddies with any sense of satisfaction, because they’ll inevitably want them back for future installments. So where’s the risk, the danger, the tension if all of your characters are immortal? You can have all the special effects-enhanced stunt sequences you want, but if we know death is off the table, how dangerous can those elaborate action sequences really feel?

The Fate of the Furious comes courtesy of screenwriter Chris Morgan, who has had a hand in the scripts of these movies since Tokyo Drift. New-to-the-franchise director F. Gary Gray (a music video whiz and helmer of such features as The Negotiator, The Italian Job, and Straight Outta Compton) is on board and does a sufficient job juggling a couple dozen major characters, including Cipher (Theron), who apparently has been the unseen controlling evil force behind the last two films. Now, she’s come out of the shadows as a hacker to not only steal some nuclear weapons but also to destroy the team/family Dom (Vin Diesel) has spent so many movies pulling together and have foiled her capers over and over again.

Photograph courtesy of Universal Pictures

The film opens in Cuba, where Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon. But that’s interrupted by Cipher, who shows Dom a video that immediately has him abandon Letty and start driving for her. After a sweet two-car race through Havana that begins the movie, there’s a major gap in action as the world at large discovers that Dom has switched sides. Dom’s core team—Tyrese Gibson as Roman; Ludacris as Tej Parker; and newest member Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel)—is informed by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new sidekick, dubbed Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), and they don’t take the news well.

Pulled out of something resembling retirement is Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who immediately lands in prison, in a cell right across from Statham’s Deckard. What a coincidence. The two threaten to pummel each other at the first opportunity, but when they are broken out together, they agree to put aside their differences until Cipher is dealt with—a bit anticlimactic, but there you have it.

The Fate of the Furious doesn’t keep it a secret long what Cipher is holding over Dom. I won’t say what it is here, but it does involve something this franchise loves doing above all other things, which is bring back characters, both living and those thought dead. And believe it or not, Dom is doing the right thing for the time being. Innocent lives are at stake, and he finds out soon enough that Cipher isn’t one for empty threats. But we also find out that Dom is secretly planning to break free of Cipher’s grip, with the help of a few stashed-away ringers, including one played by Helen Mirren (I won’t reveal her identity either, but I hope she sticks around).

Photograph courtesy of Universal Pictures

Outside of what I laid out in the first couple of paragraphs, my biggest problem with Fate is the way Theron plays Cipher. She almost never yells, in a way that suggests that someone told her that the quieter you are, the more menacing people will think you are. It doesn’t really work. What’s even stranger is that she spends almost the entire film in one of a couple rooms just pushing buttons and barking orders. Granted, the things she’s telling people to do are scary, but that doesn’t actually make her the scary one. Far more menacing is her right-hand man Rhodes (Kristofer Hivju from “Game of Thrones”), who actually commits acts of violence against people we like and doesn’t mind getting his hands bloody.

Director Gray is missing the genuine sense of unabashed fun that Justin Lin gave four of the films in the series or the sense of humanity that James Wan gave Furious 7. Gray is looking for cool and badass in the franchise that already had that covered. There’s a car chase/demolition derby through the streets of New York that is so excessive and clearly CG created that all of the magic leaks out of the sequence like so much brake fluid. Far more exciting is the deluxe-size climax set across an arctic plain that incorporates not just cars but also snow mobiles, a tank and a submarine.

So for all its talk of family and redemption, there’s surprising little emotional weight to this chapter of these films. The Fate of the Furious isn’t going to disappoint anyone if all you really care about is that all the same people you’re used to seeing are still around. The new actors featuring here are top-notch performers, even if the characters they’re asked to play are wooden, bordering on lifeless. But I’m guessing most of you who love this franchise aren’t paying your hard-earned money for depth in either characters or story. The series has had a good run for the last few installments, and based on that, I consider this one decidedly average. It’s not the greatest way to kick off the early-summer season (on the movie calendar), but not bad either. Please, if you already know you want to see this, why are you still reading?

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