No franchise has had a stranger, more circuitous route to mega-billions tentpole status than The Fast and the Furious franchise. The original film, based on a Wall Street Journal story called “Racer X,” was moderately entertaining genre grunt work. The first sequel was so forgettable that the producers just dropped all the characters for the third film, Tokyo Drift, in 2006. But they struck with that film’s director, Justin Lin, who reignited the franchise with 2009’s Fast & Furious and took it to the next level with 2011’s Fast Five, which amped up the action to cartoonishly elaborate levels—and, most importantly, added The Rock.
Next thing you know, you had the most reliable recurring hit in Hollywood this side of Transformers and, not for nothing, the most ethnically diverse four-quadrant franchise in the history of the medium. The movies were dumb, but they were cheerfully, unironically dumb—showing beautiful people having a good time is essentially why movies were invented, after all. It will get you far. It will always work.
The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in the series (now just four behind the Friday the 13th films), doesn’t have the energy of the previous two, and it doesn’t have the emotional thrust of the last one, which shamelessly but still somehow winningly milked the untimely death of co-lead Paul Walker. It has too many characters, and some are getting a little long in the tooth. Vin Diesel turns 50 this summer and he’s starting to look it. The need to constantly one-up previous installments is starting to take its toll, which means this is the rare franchise that has started to lose steam twice in its run.
And you know what? It still sort of works. The movie is dumb as a post and is so Michael Bay-levels comedy-deficient that, of all the actors in the known universe, it decides to use Tyrese Gibson as its comic relief. But you judge a Fast and the Furious movie on whether it delivers the action goods. It has to gasp and wheeze its way to get there, but, yeah, this one delivers the goods.
Do you care about the plot? Dom (Diesel) is being blackmailed, for reasons we don’t find out until halfway through the film, but are so blatantly obvious from the first reel it’s a wonder why anyone even bothered hiding it. He’s being blackmailed by Charlize Theron, who plays a hacker named Cipher in pursuit of a nuclear weapon—because by the eighth movie, if your heroes are not staving off nuclear annihilation you’re not even trying. Basically every cast member from the previous movies lines up to stop her, from The Rock to Kurt Russell to Ludacris to previous franchise bad guy Jason Statham, who brings along with him his mum, giving an opportunity, at last, for Vin Diesel and Helen Mirren to share the silver screen together. (Scott Eastwood shows up to take over the lame, charisma-free white boy mantle from Walker.)
Cipher and Dom are trying to steal something, the whole team is trying to stop them, and we count the minutes until the good guys get their Dom back, because if we know one thing about that guy, it’s that he won’t turn his back on his family. We know that about him a lot in these movies.
We rise and fall on the big action set pieces, and while there isn’t anything as inventive as Fast Five’s city chase with the cars dragging a giant safe or the batshit scene in Furious 7 when a car jumps from one skyscraper to another, the movie still gives us two jaw-droppers. The first is a clever bit in which Cipher take control of hundreds of self-driving cars and uses them to chase down a Russian official, which leads to what I’m fairly certain is the first example of the sure-to-be-lucrative Zombie Car Hordes genre.
But the true showstopper is the climax, which, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand (and am probably not meant to), takes place on a Siberian outpost and involves the world’s fastest sports cars, along with a tank (obviously) skidding around a frozen lake while being shot at by fighter jets and chased by a submarine carrying a nuclear warhead. And that’s before we get into the scene where Jason Statham has to escape 40 bad guys with guns while holding a baby. There’s a lot going on.
The movie is never particularly tense or thrilling; this is not a movie in which the conflicts are meant to feel particularly perilous. It’s more like a multicultural episode of Entourage, where you’re never really worried, never really scared, never really challenged. It’s all going to turn out just fine for everyone. The only new element here is Theron, who has the quiet smirk of someone who is by far the most talented person in the cast, but once spent a whole movie pretending to be attracted to Seth MacFarlane so isn’t going to sweat this much, no. The Rock glowers at some people, Tyrese does his best Don Rickles, Michelle Rodriguez yells “Dom!!!” a lot, and cars go super fast.
This franchise is starting to get a little tired, and this feels like the last installment before the wheels go flying off. But with the Fast and the Furious franchise, who knows? Every time I think it’s done, they find another gear. I assume the only place left to go is space? In space, can anyone hear Vin Diesel grunt?
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site