Remember back when Fast & Furious was a franchise centered around illegal street racing? Back before it became the gloriously bonkers ensemble super-spy action franchise it is now? Over the last few films there have been nods at those origins in the form of single, rather obligatory race sequences, and The Fate of the Furious is no exception. This new entry gets that obligation out of the way at the very beginning, and it’s kinda beautiful. In fact, it’s the best part of film. In what feels like a thesis statement for the series as a whole, it finds Dom in a heavily MacGyvered death trap, racing a Cuban loan shark over possession of Dom’s cousin’s car. It’s centered around a fun action sequence, but it also manages to bring in a bunch of this exhilarating and hokey franchise’s thematic concerns: redemption, earned respect, and of course the importance of family. This opener could stand on its own as a short film in the vein of a Marvel One-Shot. When I say that the film that follows doesn’t quite live up to it, that’s not that much of a criticism. It’s that damn good.
To be clear, there is a lot of really good stuff in the film that follows. Lunkheaded in a smart way, and genuinely sweet, it’s what we’ve come to expect from Fast & Furious. While the action never quite reaches the heights of Fast 5’s safe sequence or Furious Seven’s parachuting cars/bus chase scene, it’s still over the top and well crafted. Some of the fight scenes are too shakycam for my tastes, but the series’ trademark vehicular warfare is spot on.
The story embraces the more spy movie aspects of the Family’s new day jobs with both muscly arms, with Charlize Theron playing Cipher, the most Bond villainish foe our heroes have faced yet. She’s your classic movie “superhacker,” whose goals aren’t ideological or financial, but simply power for power’s sake. At the end of Dom and Letty’s Cuban honeymoon, she tracks down Dom and forces him to join her in her nefarious plans. The leverage she uses to shanghai him isn’t revealed until much later in the film, but suffice it to say it’s very much in line with the stuff Fast & Furious usually has on its mind. Hint: it rhymes with “hammily.”
Arm properly twisted, Dom assists Cipher and her team in stealing an EMP bomb, and we’re off to the metaphorical races. With Dom “gone rogue,” the series’ Nick Fury, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, being his usual charming self), enlists the family in tracking him down and preventing any future WMD-related shenanigans. He also enlists Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), and that’s where this otherwise solid installment goes astray.
If you’re new to the franchise, and shame on you if you are, Shaw was one of the heavies in Furious Seven, seeking revenge against the Family for the fate of his brother Owen. Owen Shaw was the villain in— Ah, screw it. Go watch the rest of these movies and get back to me. At the end of Fast & Furious 6,1 Deckard Shaw kills fan-favorite and explosion in a charisma factory, Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang).
The death of a Familymember is serious business in these movies, and Shaw was originally played as a slasher villain with guns. He just shows up out of nowhere throughout Furious Seven and proceeds to murder people to death. He is a capital B Bad Guy. A redemptive arc for Shaw in The Fate of the Furious really could have worked and still been in line with the Fast ethos, but in order for that to happen it would have had to address Han’s murder. It doesn’t at all. As far as I can remember, the name “Han” never leaves anyone’s lips. If anything, the antagonism between Shaw and the Family is framed more as an often funny grudge match between him and Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson)2. In every scene where the relationship between the two of them thaws a bit more into grudging respect, you can feel Han’s ghost in the room.
If you’re a fan of the franchise, the Shaw family element is the worm in the apple of this film. If you’re not? Well, it’s frankly a lot of fun. Helen Mirren, playing Mamma Shaw, gets to drop the movie’s one PG-13-compliant F-bomb, so it’s got that going for it. Too bad it’s also got an unearned warm and cuddly turn for Deckard “Killer of Beloved People” Shaw.
The Fate of the Furious is probably the weakest of the post-genre shift Fast & Furious films. I say weakest because “worst” sounds too harsh for what is generally a solid installment. The action is fun, the laughs are well-earned, and the drama is that wonderful combination of hokey and heartfelt that we’ve come to expect from the franchise. It’s a great, popcorn-munching time at the movies that is unfortunately saddled with one very poorly handled element. Go see it, have a blast, but pray to the movie gods that Fast & Furious 9 doesn’t see Cipher have an “Are we the baddies?” moment.