The Fate of the Furious opens with a drag car race through the streets of Cuba. The race ends with our hero Dom (Vin Diesel) driving his souped up jalopy backwards to avoid the flames licking at the engine and then jumping out of the car just before it turns to a fireball and plunges into the ocean. The fact that I found this sequence to be a quaint and analog nod to the series’ origins pretty much tells you all you need to know about the state of the Fast and Furious franchise. Once upon a time it was about rebel drag racers in Cali. Now it’s a global production with the most elaborate action sequences—driving a car out of a plane! driving another car out of a skyscraper!—this side of Bond films.
Each film comes with its own wrinkle—and this one has two, although one was borne out of real-life tragedy. This is the first Fast and Furious film not to feature the late Paul Walker, the affable and handsome actor who played FBI agent-turned-family-member Brian O’Conner and who died in a real-life car crash in 2013. Walker’s role had actually diminished over the years—in the first one, he was the co-lead; eventually he became more of a member of the ensemble, as the multicultural cast, including Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, and eventually superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, took center stage. The series gave Walker’s Brian a poignant send-off in Furious 7, but the question remained: How would the franchise manage without him?
Here’s where the film’s ever expanding universe is a plus. The Fate of the Furious is so overstuffed with characters—both old and new—it distracts us from Walker’s absence. What’s more, in the film’s universe, Brian is merely retired, living a normie life with his baby and wife (Jordana Brewster, who also doesn’t appear in this one), which I found kind of touching. Considering the films’ high body count, it would’ve been easy to kill Brian off. Instead, the producers chose a happy ending for our golden boy. (The Fate of the Furious does include one moving—albeit far-fetched—tribute to Brian, but I won’t give it away.)
The film’s other wrinkle, plot-wise, has to do with Dom abandoning his team and going rogue. It might’ve more interesting if we didn’t know why Dom, a guy who values his “family” above all else, had betrayed his partners—but the film chooses to tell us right away: Dom is being blackmailed by international crimelord/hacker Cipher (just go with it), played by a gleeful Charlize Theron with platinum blonde dreads and weaponized legs. Turns out, when Dom had an affair with Brazilian cop Elena (Elsa Patasky)—remember, this was when he thought Letty (Rodriguez) was dead—she got pregnant with his child. Now Cipher has both Elena and Dom’s infant son. So Dom is betraying his family for the sake of…his family.
It seems the more expanded the Fast and Furious universe becomes, the more hoops they have to jump through to feasibly bring all the characters together. In this one, underground intelligence agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) has compelled Hobbs (Johnson) and the gang to team up with Jason Statham’s mercenary Deckard (brother of Fast & Furious 6 baddie Owen Shaw), unlikely as that may seem. Somehow, Helen Mirren joins the fray—in a lively and amusing extended cameo that I won’t spoil here. They even introduce a new blandly handsome white guy in the form of Scott Eastwood, playing Mr. Nobody’s straightlaced sidekick.
The action sequences are not among the series’ best—Fast Five remains the gold standard across the board—but there are a few gems. I particularly liked a bit that took the threat of self-driving cars to their natural (and deadly) conclusion. There’s also a very long and complicated show stopper in Antarctica involving submarines and nuclear missiles and a giant body of ice.
The humor, as always, keeps things hopping. Early in the film, Hobbs is coaching his daughter’s pee-wee soccer team, who terrify their opponents by stomping out a Haka, the guttural and fierce New Zealand war dance. More jokes, like Roman (Gibson) fretting because he’s only number 11 on Interpol’s Most Wanted List and Deckard killing bad guys while cooing at Dom’s baby, add to the fun.
This is a franchise I’ve long loved, but I do wonder if they’re in danger of bursting at the seams. Between the increasingly over-the-top action sequences and the huge cast, they’re on the verge of losing the essence of what makes the series good. You can sense director F. Gary Gray straining to keep it all together, but it feels, at times, like he’s serving too many masters (remember, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham come with built in fandoms of their own). When you throw in big ticket celebs like Theron and Mirren, who clearly asked to join the party, it gets even more unwieldy. Every single Fast and Furious movie ends with Dom and his family having a barbecue. At this rate, to borrow a phrase, they’re going to need a bigger picnic table.