Director: F. Gary Gray
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham
While he may look and act like a Mr Potato Head that somehow came to life, and who then got a bit too greedy at a festive lunch and has now been left half-dozing in a bleary-eyed food coma of slurred speech and dulled faculties, Vin Diesel has become the figurehead of this improbable franchise; a series which pinwheeled with uncertainty through his absences (2Fast 2Furious, Tokyo Drift) and course-corrected with his return. Now, as F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) steps into the director’s chair, long-time F&F screenwriter Chris Morgan has made the bold decision to play Diesel’s quarter-mile-at-a-time, Corona guzzling, family man against his longtime partners in crime. With Paul Walker sadly departed, this move leaves an odd vacuum in the core group of characters that Fast & Furious 8 struggles to fill with clarity.
We open in Havana with the obligatory road race so that Dom (Diesel) can show a local don a thing or two about a thing or two (and make a handy ally to help explain away troubling plot holes later). It’s his honeymoon too, but it’s soon interrupted by the arrival of Charlize Theron’s international hacker and anarchist Cipher (yes, really). In the blink of an iPhone she turns him ‘rogue’. And it’s up to Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to assemble the team and work out what it is that turned Dom bad.
Johnson missed out on much of Fast & Furious 7 due to prior commitments, but more than makes up for that here. Indeed, if the series has a credible replacement for Diesel it is Johnson. He gets a little more time than he’s previously been afforded, his life away from all of this madness is glimpsed again, and he gets a fair amount of the action, not to mention some of the movie’s choice zingers to spit to camera. Nevertheless, F&F8 isn’t quite confident enough to give the movie to him wholesale. Is it second guessing or is it mere fan service that brings Jason Statham’s Deckard back into the mix so soon? Playing Deckard off against Hobbs is fun enough, but having the F&F family embrace him as one of their own so soon after Han (does nobody remember Han??) feels like a bitter pill to swallow, especially for a series which prides itself on loyalty over all.
Characters switching sides for the sole purpose of mixing things up sounds like an act of desperation, and in F&F8 it is. Of course Dom’s playing an extreme double-cross and history is rewritten to accommodate this early-doors, but throwing Statham in with the good guys muddies the waters a little too far and leaves the other mainstays (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and welcome recent edition Nathalie Emmanuel) sniffing for scraps. Statham has the charm and goofiness to rival Johnson for the role of ‘the new Dom’, but his character is inherently stained (Han!), even in a series which has previously established a penchant for restlessly yo-yo-ing good guys and bad guys for the sake of another callback.
In the main this leaves the much of F&F8 feeling like a bit of a muddle as we jerk our way laboriously through a tired – and tiring – plot stitched together from a handful of lesser Bond movies. Cipher’s master plan is nothing short of literal world domination. By the time we get to the finale (this series’ version of the snow level in a side-scrolling platform game) we’re knee-deep in Russian submarines, launch codes and nuclear footballs. Did series creator Gary Scott Thompson ever envision this? There’s a pit stop for some silly action in the middle of this picture (a sequence involving a lot of programmable cars falling out of buildings plays like a kid using his Tupperware tub of Micro Machines to reenact Inception) but in the main F&F8 is just… well… boring.
Because we’ve seen shit like this too many times now. Not just from F&F but from Bond or any number of it’s lesser siblings. Going through the motions to fill out a requisite 130 minutes feels like exactly that; an exercise. And believe me, Helen Mirren adds nothing as Statham’s ‘comedic’ henpecking mother (yes, really).
Granted once Gray steam rollers his film to its ice field finale, things do perk up a notch, largely down to the silly factor skyrocketing into the stratosphere. With – SPOILER – Dom back in with his buddies everything feels right with the world again. But even then, and despite Johnson’s best efforts to charm his way to the top, it is Statham who steals the show with a sequence that is at once eye-rollingly stupid and guiltily gleeful. It recalls Hard Boiled lovingly.
Yet still, it feels as though F&F8 has blurred the lines for the series without a care for the consequences. Loyalty and family, once concepts that bound these films so tightly, now feel like moment-to-moment concerns, arbitrary and dependent on self-serving circumstance. But so what, I guess? So what if Dom only has fair-weather enemies? Maybe the lesson here is that forgiveness is – or can be – limitless? Or maybe it’s just that Dom’s such a great guy that it’s impossible to be his enemy for any significant period of time? Who knows? Look out for Cipher bringing Dom his NOS in a pair of skinny gold hot pants by the end of the next movie despite her actions here no doubt.
Probably I’m reading too much into this. Fast & Furious is just shrewdly following in the footsteps of the other giant franchises of modern Hollywood; Marvel and DC. Why devise rounded antagonists when you can just set your existing stable of characters against one another ad nauseam? These movies clearly exist to make money now, although there’s something to be said for giving an established fan base more of what they love. But what’s left for the fans of these movies? Where next? See you Easter after next to find out.