“Whatever it takes to keep it running.”
That’s what someone says about an older car at the start of The Fate of the Furious. It’s a bit of dialogue, but also a confessional nod to the fact that the Fast and Furious franchise is at a crossroads. Not only does this represent the eighth entry, but it’s also the first to be filmed since the death of original co-star Paul Walker. What will it take to keep this thing running?
Walker is certainly missed, mostly for the way his sunniness softened the gruffness of Vin Diesel. Together, they fostered a communal vibe that was the heart of the franchise. The Fate and the Furious not only finds Diesel’s Dominic Toretto without his unlikely best friend, but also playing the bad guy. For reasons better left unrevealed, Dom turns against his team of international spy racers to work for a cyber terrorist known as Cipher (Charlize Theron). And so we get a lot more Dom than usual, and he’s grimmer than ever.
Perhaps to compensate, director F. Gary Gray emphasizes comedy far more than his predecessors. I wasn’t particularly happy when Dwayne Johnson brought his self-aware insincerity to the series a few films ago, as I liked it better when these movies weren’t in on the joke. But we’re far past the point of return on that. As Hobbs, Johnson gets some of the best gags, including an extended bit of chirping with another returning muscleman (Jason Statham) when they find themselves in jail cells across the hall from each other. Statham, meanwhile, expands on the comic chops he showed in Spy, especially in a climactic shoot-out he must negotiate while carrying a baby. (Did I mention that in this variation Statham’s Deckard is a good guy?)
How is the action? Serviceable. The Fate of the Furious will be remembered for its polar finale, in which the team takes on a rogue Russian submarine that comes bursting out of the ice, but the sequence relies a bit too much on CGI to be a truly Fast and Furious moment. I much prefer the opening sequence in Havana, in which Dom challenges a local tough guy to a race in a decades-old beater. The city’s streets offer acute angles that separate the drivers for tantalizing seconds (a bit like the podrace sequence in The Phantom Menace) and Dom is forced to call a crazy audible near the end when his engine catches fire. The race concludes at the seashore with a stunt that serves as both grace note and punchline. For most of its running time, The Fate of the Furious is a desperate search for a new spark plug, but in those few seconds we get the franchise at its finest.