Over the next several weeks, Game of Nerds will be looking back at our greatest modern soap opera. Each installment of the main Fast and Furious franchise will be covered in preparation for the release of F9 on June 25, 2021.
One of the enduring topics regarding franchise filmmaking is the battle between art and commerce. Following Furious 7 (2015), a film that ended with a touching tribute to deceased star Paul Walker, many fans of the series were content in seeing the franchise ride off into the sunset along with him. But a $1.516 billion worldwide box office haul seemingly made the decision easy for Universal Studios as well as the cast and crew. To be fair, Furious 7 was never hinted to be the conclusion of the series, before or after Walker’s death. But, after ending on such a strong note in the previous film, you better bring your A-game when you decide this story must go on.
Our new chapter finds Dominic (Vin Diesel) & Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) vacationing in Cuba. Following a lengthy drag race, because you know Dom can’t help himself, we see the couple discussing their lives and planning to have children. Those plans take an unexpected turn when Dom is approached by Cypher (Charlize Theron), a mysterious woman who appears to know a terrible amount about Dom, and has a secret that seemingly bends him to her will. When Hobbs (The Rock) assembles the crew for a new mission (I don’t know why this man doesn’t recruit a team of trained military personnel rather than this ragtag group of urban outfitters), everyone is seemingly on board. With the exception of an aloof and antagonistic Dom, who soon proves he can’t be trusted.
As Letty and company are forced to react to Dom’s perplexing new allegiance, they’re presented with an unexpected allie in Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who has his own history with Cypher. The execution of Shaw’s role in this is a perplexing one that somewhat betrays the franchise’s larger narrative. Shaw was out for blood in Furious 7, killing Han and targeting the remaining protagonists. But here, we see a guy gradually warm up to the likes of Hobbs and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), creating a conflict of interest for the audience. We understand that Statham is a star that the Fast movies want to turn into a recurring character, but this is not the way to go about it. You committed so hard into establishing him as a villain, but now you want us to like him? OK, let’s try harder to actually earn that.
During a key scene, Shaw is completing a task in support of the good guys, but the scene is played entirely for “laughs” in an incredibly silly fight that’s just begging the audience to see Shaw as comedic and warm-hearted. Yeah, let’s forget about all the murder and attempted murder the character is associated with, isn’t he so wholesome? Honestly, I blame anime for this ubiquitous narrative faux pas of contradicting your own characters, but there was still a way for the film to make this work. Instead of shying away from the conflicted emotions Shaw and the protagonists have for each other, play that aspect up even more. It should be a difficult decision when a character has to trust Shaw with the life of a loved one, and there should be evidence of contentious feelings the two characters have for another after Shaw fulfills his end of the deal. Instead, we get laughable scenes where Hobbs has to pretend he’s really torn up about Shaw’s well-being when the two men probably liked each other for about 15 minutes.
Despite all of these bizarre story choices, the movie is still rapturous and aesthetically appealing, which largely explains the film’s $1.239 billion worldwide box office. Franchise newcomer F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) steps into the director’s chair and brings his own visual flair to the series. Here, the cinematography is lush and vibrant, a welcome change from Furious 7 which is a movie that often had the color palette of an Iran hostage video. I also enjoy the fun Gray has with the format – when we go to a new location, graphics of the city’s name are embedded into the establishing shot in a way that should become the new standard for the trope.
The movie highlights the gorgeous features of Havana, while illuminating the slickness of New York City. Gray is a New York native, which probably helped his candidacy with Diesel and Universal. When Dom makes his way to New York in a chrome whip, the low camera angle used to capture his arrival is more reminiscent of a Jay-Z music video than a Fast & Furious film. In addition to the look of the film, the movies have pretty much nailed the character dynamics within the main cast, even if it’s not quite as funny as previous installments. Although it is hilariously preposterous when Roman (Tyrese) and Tej (Ludacris) can’t answer a simple question from Ramsey, when the answer was central to the conflict in Furious 7.
The car chases, as expected, imbue The Italian Job (2003) for it’s superb framing and colorful design. The best set piece arrives when Cypher hacks seemingly every car in the metropolitan area to create a distraction so Dom can complete their goal. However, Hobbs, Letty, Roman, and Tej are able to surround him and subdue his vehicle with grappling hooks. But none of them can anticipate Dom activigating Car Kung Fu to turn the tables on them. This entire scene stands as one of the most over the top stretches of the franchise, which is significant given that I’ve become a bit numb to the series’ foolishness by watching each installment week after week.
Overall, despite lively action set pieces and some intriguing dramatic beats, The Fate of the Furious is largely undercut by its frustrating last half hour. The conclusion is convoluted while also lacking tension. The good guys are plot-armored to the tilt, impervious to even the slightest bit of danger, while the overly complicated resolution relies on Cypher going from Internationally omnipresent criminal mastermind, to a moron in the span of 20 minutes. From a writing standpoint, it all feels slapped together like duct tape on a car bumper.
This all calls into question rather the series should have went out on the high of Furious 7. While I’m not upset that the 8th installment exists, its story seems to be cobbled together, even if the primary motivation for Dom still continues to be his love for his family. The characters here, on multiple occasions, seem too eager to forgive and forget some pretty significant betrayals or atrocities without proper development or explanations. Thus, it makes the audience feel stupid as we compare how wildly different we would react in these situations. This is a visually impressive film wrapped in a sea of screenwriting nonsense and unconvincing acting. Yes, like much of the franchise, The Fate of the Furious is a messy bitch.
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