Movie review: The Fate of the Furious

About an hour and a half into The Fate of the Furious, my mind had already started turning over variations of the mildly negative review I figured I’d be writing for the film. After a fun, Havana-set opening that returns the franchise to its street-racing roots (amped up to 11, of course), the film gets bogged down in tons of go-nowhere exposition, only to follow that with a big action sequence in New York that proves to be a mind-numbing slog. This is it, I thought. We had a good run from Fast Five through Furious 7, but the series’ over-the-top bombast has finally worn out its welcome. For the first time in a long time, a Fast & Furious movie was boring me.

And then the action moves to Russia, and it’s like a switch gets flipped. The giant submarine from the trailer shows up, and the movie goes all-in on the soap-opera drama that’s always set this franchise apart from other action series. There are twists. There are turns. Allegiances shift on a dime. The are callbacks to F&F movies past. And, best of all, Jason Statham grabs the movie by the throat and makes it his own.

That’s right, Statham fans: TIME TO GET HAPPY. It’s fascinating how the stars of this franchise have shifted over time, starting with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker serving as co-pilots for the saga but with later films leaning more on Diesel as the enterprise’s center. Then Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson got added, his star power re-tilting the scale, which was again thrown off balance by Walker’s untimely death. As you’d expect, Johnson’s Luke Hobbs does get more screen time in Fate than he did in Furious 7, but it’s Statham who picks the movie up on his shoulders and carries it into the post-Brian O’Connor era. Yeah, I know he was the villain last time around, but you don’t have to worry about that. The movie certainly doesn’t.

Why is Statham on the side of the angels this time? It’s because Dom (Diesel) has gone rogue, turning on his family to steal an EMP device for a nefarious hacker named Cipher (Charlize Theron). The trailers have smartly hidden what makes Dom switch sides, but rest assured the film provides a damn good reason why Dom’s up to no good. With Cipher intent on procuring a nuclear weapon, Kurt Russell’s returning Mr. Nobody tasks the only two people who have ever successfully tracked Dom down — Hobbs and Deckard Shaw (Statham) — with finding Cipher and foiling her plans. Assisting them are the usual gang of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), with Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) returning from 7 and being bumped up to full fam status. No one seems to remember or much care that Deckard killed Han two movies ago, so I assume Letty’s amnesia is contagious and has spread to the rest of the group.

Like I said, there’s too much exposition early on, with the “God’s Eye” device from the last movie brought back for no good reason. Nobody asked for more hacking in a Fast and Furious movie. Then they went a made the villain of this one a hacker. Anytime someone’s on a computer in this movie, I felt my eyelids droop. Theron is fine as the heavy, playing an ice queen who looks like a sex goddess, but sadly fails to bring the same fuck-yeah vitality she brought to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Perhaps the New York chase would work better if the trailers hadn’t spoiled the bit about Cipher remotely commandeering all the high-tech cars in the vicinity, but knowing that bit is coming takes the one good jolt out sequence. There’s the usual bad jokes and tough-guy posturing, all of which feels a little lazy. At least until the moment when Statham openly laughs at The Rock’s machoism … and then The Rock laughs back, the characters understanding how ludicrous the words that are coming out of their mouths sound. That is delightful. As is Helen Mirren stopping by to basically be Helen Mirren and drop an F-bomb. Less successful is the addition of a wooden Scott Eastwood as Kurt Russell’s new lackey. How dare they give that guy a plum part but not bring back Tokyo Drift‘s Lucas Black? HOW DARE THEY?!

Eh, but we’re here to talk about Statham. Once the action movies to Russia, director F. Gary Gray (his first time behind the F&F steering wheel) delivers a bevy of thrilling, intercut action sequences. The are fist fights. There are snowmobiles and turbo-charged cars criss-crossing the ice as a giant submarine stalks our heroes from below. And, best of all, there is Jason Statham, pulling off an assault on Theron’s high-tech flying headquarters with … uh … let’s go with “a sidekick” in tow. Some may find it overly cartoonish. I think it’s the best part of the movie. Hell, I think it may be the most giddily enjoyable thing the franchise has done since Dom and Brian dragged that vault around the streets of Brazil at the end of Fast Five. As a result, the film is transformed from a somewhat disappointing installment into a rousing and enjoyable bit of mayhem that falls short of the last three movies but still succeeds in extending the Furious winning streak.

I’m not sure if Johnson will be back for the next movie. He and Diesel have been involved in a very public feud since this film was in production, and Fate certainly leaves his character in a place where it’ll make sense if Hobbs doesn’t show up next time. Which means there could be another void to fill. If so, that void MUST be filled by Jason Statham. Give him even more to do. And if that’s still not enough, then bring back Lucas Black please. Hey, how about a movie where Dom recruits Deckard and Sean Boswell (who must still hate Deckard for Han’s death even if the rest of the crew senselessly does not) to take on Han’s evil twin? In most franchises, such a plot line would be considered jumping the shark. In the Fast & Furious movies, it would be just another typical weekend for Dom and the fam.