- Fun, but silly, action-adventure romp
- Lazy narrative devices towards end
- Bland, generic tech-savvy villain
- Excellent humour from Statham and Johnson
Watching The Fast and the Furious on TV a few days ago, I was reminded how much the franchise has changed over the last sixteen years. The first film, released in 2001, was a fairly naturalistic story about an undercover LA cop, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), infiltrating a street racing ring led by elite driver, and tight-white T-shirt fanatic, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel). The film was inspired by an article in Vibe Magazine, detailing the real-life exploits of a New York street racing circuit. Somewhere along the line though, naturalism became less of a concern, and the eighth (eighth!) offering in this contemporary Canterbury Tales, The Fate of the Furious, follows the maximal lead of its more recent predecessors (Five, Six and Seven).
By now the formula is an established one; outlandish CGI stunts, resplendent globe-trotting (including a visit to the Russian Arctic) and the all-pervading idea of “family”. There is little, if any, actual street-racing; or any ‘street-racing’ as would be understood in the real world. There is a nod to the film’s more humble origins in the opening sequence with a race through the streets of Havana. But the ending to this is so cartoonish, so absurd (Toretto’s car functionally turns into a rocket after his engine catches fire), as to render any meaningful comparison to the first film meaningless. Not that any of this has harmed the franchise’s pulling power. Quite the opposite. Revenues have grown with each instalment, and in its opening weekend the eighth film took $532 million worldwide, setting a new record for the highest-grossing opening of all time. At the time of writing (early May) the film has grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The eighth picks up where the seventh left off. Dom is now happily married to Letty (Michelle Rodriquez), Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is happily coaching his daughter’s football team, and the rest of the family/crew are happily doing whatever it is they do in the off-season. There is a large amount of personal fulfilment all round. Yet things suddenly take a turn for the worse during a routine job in Berlin to retrieve a weapon of mass destruction (naturally). Dom turns on his crew/family, seizing the weapon for himself. “Dom Toretto has gone rouge,” Hobbs sombrely declares into his massive walkie-talkie in the aftermath of the event.
Toretto is an interesting choice for a villain for two reasons. Firstly, Vin Diesel believes all emotions are outwardly expressed with a scowl, which makes it difficult to know how to react to most of what he does. And secondly, because the idea of family, and its immense importance to all involved, is crowbarred into every single conversation. Has Toretto finally turned on those he loves? Is his dark criminal streak resurfacing?
No, sadly not – though that may have resulted in a more interesting film. Toretto’s betrayal is instead the work of the ‘elusive’ (as they always are) cyberterrorist Cipher, played rather blandly by Charlize Theron. She holds some mysterious sway over Toretto and uses this to force him to comply with her demands. As is fast becoming an action movie mainstay (think for instance of the first meeting in Skyfall between Craig’s Bond and Whishaw’s Q), despite the cyberterrorist’s immense powers, a man on the ground is still required to do the dirty work. This is why she needs Diesel’s unlikely turncoat, to run what constitutes a series of super-errands, which mainly involve him stealing things in his implausibly powerful supercar.
What eventually transpires is that Theron’s Cipher is holding Toretto’s old flame Elena Neves (Elsa Patasky) hostage aboard her plane. This is what she has over him. Rather more shockingly, and in this I’m thinking of the child, Dom Toretto is a father too. Returning once more to its central theme, it turns out the only thing that could motivate Toretto to betray his family is, of course, even more family!
Yet it is here that the film runs into problems. In stretching its driving ideal to eke out a villainous turn from Diesel’s Toretto, the notion of family is turned against itself. All of a sudden, a genuinely interesting narrative dilemma emerges – Toretto loves two women at the same time, so how is he to choose between them? Which family is he to prioritise? It’s a messy situation, especially as Cipher’s near God-like omnipotence (wearable tech will be the death of us all) seems to exclude the possibility of a daring aerial rescue by the rest of the family/crew.
Resolution comes in the form of an unexpectedly violent act. In retaliation for a perceived indiscretion by Toretto, Neves is executed. Shot in the head at point blank range in front of her infant son. What is shocking about this scene, and what makes it so unsatisfactory, is that it is entirely out of step with the tone of the rest of the film. It jars horribly because no other significant character, excluding here the multitude of nameless thugs dispatched for entertainment, suffers such a gruesome fate. Indeed, there is a scene earlier in the film when Cipher passes on the chance to kill the entire crew, despite the fact that they have repeatedly foiled her in the past.
But Neves is killed not because she poses a physical threat – how could she, safely locked away in Cipher’s tastefully lit prison? She is killed because she confuses the film’s ‘cosy’, uncomplicated idea of family; one in which best friends emerge unscathed from every fight and the hero gets the girl at the end of the day. Her murder paves the way for the finale; in her absence, Dom and Letty can reunite and resume their happy marriage at the obligatory end-of-film-BBQ.
Neves’ blunt, cruel end is a shame and sours the mood of what is otherwise a fairly enjoyable, if a little silly, action-adventure romp. It takes the sheen off Toretto’s eventual return to the fold and leaves you wondering if the writers could have found a less ham-fisted way of getting the family/crew all back together again. For many though, this won’t matter. For its core demographic, the film delivers. There are enough car-based blockbuster moments to keep the teenage boy in you entertained, including the aforementioned Arctic scene. And there’s also, when Jason Statham and the artist formerly known as “The Rock” are together, some humour too.