“The Fate of the Furious” offers plenty of bang for your buck. Nothing but bang, as a matter of fact.
Its opening 10 minutes would be the cherry-on-top climax of most race and chase adventures. Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and his new bride, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), are honeymooning in Havana, but skip swimming and salsa dancing. Instead, they team up against a moneylender seizing a rusty jalopy from Dom’s Cuban relation, who has defaulted on his payments.
Dom challenges the loan shark to street race his early ’60s muscle car against the rustbucket because this is a “Fast” movie, and that’s the way these things go. Cue an earth-shattering, mind-blowing, disbelief-suspending milelong dash across the old city. Dom wins by a hair, flipping the decrepit car over the finish line and catapulting its flaming chassis into the sea. Metaphorically jumping the shark, a cynic would say.
Depending on your cheese tolerance, you may agree. While there are points to be made about the eighth iteration of the franchise spinning its wheels and running out of gas, nitpicking the series would be taking a wrong turn on flat tires. Yes, this is entry-level filmmaking in many ways. The scripts are shamelessly dumb, inventing cool sequel names seems to be the top creative focus, and Diesel is no Lou Ferrigno.
Yet, this brand of gaudy nonsense hits a sweet spot of schlocky B-movie absurdity. It straddles the uncanny valley between “fun bad” and “bad bad.” This is stupidity with conviction, deliberately hack movies that are loved for their delirious hackiness.
Like the “Sharknado” brand, “Fast” movies represent a gonzo unstoppable force in a category by itself. The last film in the series, released two years ago, cost a staggering $250 million and earned Universal Pictures $1.5 billion worldwide. It’s the company’s most lucrative mega-franchise ever. Negative reactions will slow down the ever-accelerating profit and popularity as much as gnat splats on a rocket sled. Expect it to continue for as long as little boys play with toy cars, their older brothers like scantily clad babes and their dads dig pro wrestling’s big, bald guys with bowling ball biceps and bad attitudes.
To ensure that the principle of diminishing returns doesn’t apply, this installment increases the stakes, raises the already stratospheric bonkers factor several notches, and shuffles around its cast of good guys and villains. Straight-arrow Dom goes rogue, deserting his new wife and beloved family in service of the evil global hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron, wearing blond hair extensions, a Metallica T-shirt and virtually illegal short shorts in an introduction clearly showing us she’s no garden-variety cybercriminal).
Meanwhile, the feds recruit Letty, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) to hunt down Dom. The last film’s heavy, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), is added to the squad for his flawless tracking skills, which lead the team from New York City to deepest Siberia. If you have been dreaming of the day when Toretto & Co. would fight helicopters and submarines, wait no longer, your wish has come true.
Not everyone appears to be in on the joke. Diesel still plays his scenes by staring blankly into the middle distance. His pseudo-hot sensual snippets with Rodriguez and Theron are implausible beyond belief. His most comfortable physical contact with his co-stars always seems to come as he says grace at each film’s end credits team dinner. Even at the wheel of a race car, he shows it’s possible to be boring without being slow.
Chris Miller, who has written every “Fast” movie since the third, again fills the screen with “don’t ask how this is supposed to work” moments. His script reflects the zeitgeist of the times, though probably unintentionally. Key plot points include a secretive, arrogant woman reaching for global power, international cyber-hacking attacks, nefarious Russians at the U.N., a lunatic with access to nuclear launch codes and a world in which all scientifically rational facts are abandoned. And he isn’t stingy with the series’ selling point, which is to say that major action set pieces pop up at Whac-A-Mole speed.
Miller also remembers to generously add the special sauce of zany comedy. Statham gets the film’s biggest big laughs with his wiseguy character work, and an epic fight scene that he flies through with a dancer’s grace while holding a newborn under his arm. Johnson finds time to lead a dozen little girls through a Polynesian war dance, an adorable gag as completely preposterous as the film itself.
Making a willfully bad movie that is this amusing must be more difficult than making a good movie, but they have pulled it off.