The Fast & Furious movies are, some might argue, the quintessential Hollywood franchise for the Donald Trump era of mass stupidity, mindless consumerism and blinkered aggression. Big bald men in fast cars, occasionally stepping out of their cars to punch each other, is not a recipe for intelligent or nuanced cinema. And these movies, by any estimation, do not claim to provide essential cultural commentary nor occupy any space in the market broader than what they deserve. But, as Dom Toretto (star/producer Vin Diesel) and his ‘family’ of ethnically-diverse road-racers speed into their eighth (!!!) movie, the fourth since ‘franchise Viagra’ Dwayne Johnson jumped in and turned up the energy tenfold with 2011’s excellent Fast Five, there are indeed admirably-crafted elements to this seemingly dumb product; unlike so many of its multiplex counterparts, Universal’s Fast series has a great amount of self-awareness, allowing the films to simultaneously be sold to the masses as ‘high-stakes action’ but also amuse the… shall we say, Less Mindless among us with a sort of meta-exploration of its premise. Because who honestly wants to watch bald men driving and punching if there aren’t constant winks to camera?
The Fate of the Furious (unimaginatively retitled Fast & Furious 8 outside the US) sees Diesel’s Toretto blackmailed and recruited by cyber-terrorist Cypher (Charlize Theron), turning against his ‘family’ (Michelle Rodriguez is his loving wife, Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson his uber-sexist wingmen) and become the subject of more character development than a Fast film ever needed. Toretto isn’t a very interesting guy; he loves God and he loves his ‘family’. More compelling is the movies’ reprogramming of the character from trash-talking street racer to global superspy, working under the command of Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his mysterious intelligence organisation.
Unlike, say, Michael Bay’s Transformers horrors, Fast and Furiousacknowledges the brilliant implausibility of its rapidly-increased stakes; what were once films about little-guy gangsters now feature nuclear submarines and political assassination attempts. And moreso even than Furious 6 or 7, F8 adapts itself to the model of the Mission: Impossible films: a series of stunts, linked by dramatic but ultimately unimportant plot, in beautiful exotic locations. As if desperate to escape the shackles of its former self with some finality, F8 begins with a Havana street-race, preceded by customary upskirt shots of various women, and then never displays a single frame of such lechery again until the credits roll. F. Gary Gray, coming off Straight Outta Compton and directing with a surprising vitality, doesn’t seem as comfortable with the franchise’s casual misogyny as his predecessors, and that’s a big plus in driving the series forward into a less dated realm of blockbuster filmmaking.
As Cypher works her mind-games on Dom, the film skips between laughable melodrama — Dom’s beloved crucifix plays an important role — and tonally-jarring side-action involving Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs. Hobbs’ adventures are accompanied by Date/Location stamps in the corner of the screen and are abundant in cheesy jokes about Taylor Swift and such; it’s literally a different film to what Dom and Cypher are starring in. But that’s part of the fun. Anyone wishing to watch a coherent, three-act drama has no place in a Fast and Furious crowd; F8 is a bastardised hybrid of movie tropes, featuring a group of actors who wouldn’t seem out-of-place on a daytime soap opera.
The exceptions to this are Johnson, continuing to earn his place as America’s highest-paid actor with a winning mix of terrifying physical largeness and cocky charm, and this film’s MVP: Jason Statham, who was misused as a villain in Furious 7 but is reappropriated terrifically as a member of the team this time around. Whether exchanging crude and culturally-insensitive jabs with Johnson, performing parkour during cinema’s most riveting prison breakout since Ghost Protocol or receiving a painful injection from his mother (an all-too-briefly-cameoing Helen Mirren), Statham embodies the cheeky tone that has made the Fast films so successful.
As the climax approaches, and we’re being shown alternate flashes of a submarine crashing through Siberian ice as Tyrese takes a selfie, and Statham taking out twenty henchman on a plane whilst holding a baby, one cannot help but laugh wholeheartedly at the magical mayhem to which we are being treated. Television and streaming may be the future of smart, creatively-driven output, but the cinema was built for lunacy like The Fate of the Furious.