The Fast and The Furious is a strange beast of a franchise. It’s actually old enough that when Brian O’Connor (the late Paul Walker) started investigating Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), it was because he was stealing… DVD players. Somehow the franchise survived being abandoned by its stars one by one, only for them to return once director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan found their groove.
Lin and Morgan were the ones who really made “family” the core theme, and together, they were able to weaponize a style that saw the franchise reach unforeseen heights in terms of outlandish stunts and boffo box office.
It’s also had to grow and change over the years. Under Lin and Morgan, “family” meant adding characters to the roster. They then had to expand—or explode—what a Fast/Furious movie could be. Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious came into the fold, as “comic relief” and “tech guy,” respectively. Han from Tokyo Drift, with a creative bit of retroactive continuity, came aboard. Gisele (Gal Gadot), first an antagonist, joined the team.
There’s an argument to be made that they should’ve just called it quits after Fast Five, the apex of the series. But the gods of commerce would not allow such a thing to pass. Fast & Furious Six saw them become some kind of paramilitary strike force, dealing with international terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, which has continued to this latest installment, the first after Paul Walker’s accidental death during a break in the filming of 2015’s Furious 7.
The Fate of the Furious tries to do a lot. Supposedly it’s the first of a new trilogy—at least according to producer/star Diesel. They have to establish what the franchise is without Walker. They feel they have to up the ante while retaining their core. They want to introduce a capable threat, in the form of Charlize Theron’s Cipher. Sadly, they’re not entirely successful on any front.
What the series has done is fully embrace “Bayhem.” That is to say, Michael Bay’s signature brand of over-the-top, non-stop, very loud, mostly brainless mayhem. The team are now taking on nuclear weapons and the submarines that launch them, exotic locales where Tyrese, in a mind-boggling move, decides to bring a Lamborghini instead of an off-road vehicle. They’re fighting super-hackers who can commandeer self-driving cars, whose headquarters is an airplane out of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
Let’s talk about that villain for a bit. The worst crime of Fate is that it never lets Charlize Theron drive a car, which is almost unforgivable in a post-Mad Max: Fury Road world. It makes zero sense. There are smaller crimes, too: that hairstyle, for one, which seems inspired by Gary Oldman in True Romance. The name Cipher: Is she a refugee from a bad ‘90s movie? Did she used to crew aboard the Nebuchadnezzar with Morpheus and Trinity?
Her techno-terrorist baddie is almost exactly Timothy Olyphant in Live Free or Die Hard: controlling things remotely, shouting angrily into headsets, talking trash while typing on a keyboard real fast and acting all confident and know-it-all. She starts talking about choice and accountability and you’re reminded of The Architect’s insufferable bloviating in The Matrix Reloaded. And that’s never a good comparison to make.
Theron does what she can but this character is some weak sauce. Her motivations aren’t really sketched out and she does two things that don’t really seem in character; they just needed something cool for the trailers.
The best thing they did is keep Jason Statham. The best action scenes, and best scenes in general, are the ones with him in them. While Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs is an unstoppable force, shrugging away rubber bullets and bench-pressing concrete slabs, there’s not much artistry to his action scenes; he punches people, slams them into objects, they go down.
Statham is all grace and cat-like moves, a joy to behold in a prison break and entertaining everywhere else. He shares chemistry with Johnson, and more than once they sidle up next to each other with taunts, aching for a fight. It was getting so thick they could’ve just as easily started making out.
Statham continues this trend of the franchise to grow its “family.” As mentioned, Gisele used to work for the bad guys before she broke good, and Johnson himself was the one chasing the team in Fast Five. Statham was the villain in the last film, and now he’s on the same side.
It’s like they’re unlocking playable characters the more levels/stages they complete. By this rationale, we should fully expect Theron to team up with them next time, against a much badder villain who somehow knows them all and has been pulling the strings for some time. Maybe they’ll finally let her drive!
But it’s one of those things they probably didn’t think through fully, because it shows the problematic cracks in a franchise that’s increasingly doing something it shouldn’t: Take itself seriously (another Michael Bay flaw). On paper, and as an action fan, of course you want to keep Statham. But to see him bond with these characters, who are supposed to be all about “family,” can be confusing. Even if Statham’s character says he only went after them because they took down his brother (there’s that family angle again!), he straight-up murdered one of them! And it doesn’t even get mentioned here!
Though the roster’s becoming unwieldy, they still have a few fun moments. But there’s not much depth of characterization to go around when every character only gets a few lines and they have to be either comic relief or exposition. Surprisingly, Helen Mirren’s the one who looks like she enjoyed herself the most, and her enthusiasm is infectious.
While director F. Gary Gray is certainly capable (his remake of The Italian Job came out the same year as 2 Fast), the action scenes and style of the film lack Lin’s pizzazz. Instead of coming up with clever, breathtaking stunts they rely on tropes that belong in James Bond or Mission: Impossible movies, as if scale itself were enough to buy our wonder. Take a page from the sheer bravura artistry of awesome action in Mad Max: Fury Road. Show us something radical, don’t just make sure we understand this film cost $250 million.
The problem with leaning into “Bayhem” is adopting what makes “Bayhem” stultifying: overlong, over-serious, exhausting, occasionally preachy, underwritten action epics that bludgeon you with explosions and screeching metal while employing copious amounts of slow motion.
It doesn’t help that Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight also features its main character breaking bad and turning against his “family.” In the future, Toretto and friends need to remember to keep things fun above all else, lest the franchise become that extended family member you have fond memories of but whose persistent drinking is becoming impossible to ignore. Perhaps an intervention is in order.