Fate of the Furious, the newest film in the improbable franchise, contains a metaphor for itself in its opening drag race on the Cuban streets. A classic car, powered by an engine cobbled together from a bunch of different cars and even a boat. Is it still a car engine? Sure, even if the pieces aren’t used quite as intended, it still runs and keeps a family tradition alive.
Dominic Toretto sees it as emblematic of the Cuban spirit, but it also represents this series of films. Shiny and slick on the outside, looking like a classic blockbuster, but underneath a surprising mix of parts that usually work. Fate also represents another shift for the franchise, tweaking the heist film pattern of the last three films into a full on spy thriller. And while it mostly works— at least a ¼ mile at a time— this installment has issues which keeps it from standing alongside the series’ best.
We open with Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) on their honeymoon in Cuba. Dom defends his cousin against the local race king in a sequence that pops with color and is legitimately thrilling, as some of the heightened action the series is now known for is blended in with its drag race roots. From there, we get the hook of this story, with notorious hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron) blackmailing Dom into joining her side to help execute her plan borrowed directly from the Bond Villain Handbook (The Brosnan Years). And of course, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) assembles the “fambly” to capture Dom and stop Cipher.
This leads to a showdown where Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Letty, Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and an enemy-turned-ally Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) attempt to capture Dom. This middle action scene is an absolute joy, filled to the brim with vehicular mayhem of the highest order. Eventually it all leads to a chase across the icy shores of Russia, in a sequence that asks, “What would Mad Max: Fury Road: On Ice was a thing?” This is not a bad impulse at all.
And F. Gary Gray does an excellent job directing much of the vehicular action in the first two thirds, but any hand-to-hand combat suffers from too much quick cutting. The choreography seems like it is strong enough, but we barely get to actually see any of it. Every blockbuster should be able to match John Wick, but it’s becoming more and more distracting. The climax of the final action scene (with the submarine) suffers from a muddy look and bad geography. These are choices, and the film suffers for them.
Chris Morgan has been the franchise’s only screenwriter from Tokyo Drift onward, which is a boon, especially because it results in each character having a consistent voice in this sprawling cast. He should also get credit for the deft way in which the franchise handles continuity, and it is nice to see character cameos from previous entries continue. And every single line Hobbs and Deckard exchange is a wonderful treat. As is a brief appearance by Helen Mirren. However, Morgan makes a few big mistakes here which weaken Fate.
The biggest issue is the ‘Dom betrayal’ storyline. It’s not a bad idea, even if it feels very zeitgeist-y thanks to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. However, it feels like the timing couldn’t be worse. In a lot of ways, Paul Walker’s character was the optimistic heart of the series, and to have the first movie he doesn’t appear in separate Vin Diesel from the rest of the main cast feels like a mistake. First, we don’t get enough time to understand the team dynamic without Walker’s character since the betrayal happens before anyone besides Diesel or Rodriguez appears. Secondly, the betrayal itself isn’t convincing to the rest of the “fambly,” which undercuts any of the dramatic tension from this choice.
The other major story choice that’s a problem is how much this film relies on hacking as a plot device. It was a minor part of Furious 7, but by making Charlize Theron’s Cipher a hacker, there are far too many scenes of two characters in two different rooms typing at a keyboard. It isn’t dynamic action, and the technobabble that results isn’t interesting, nor does it add any tension. This is a pervasive problem with action movies currently, and it shouldn’t be something worth noting about a series that is mostly about tricked out cars, but here we are. If the series is going to continue down its Spyhunter path, it is going to have to figure that out.
To some, all of these will be nitpicks, and to others they will be a mark that the film has jumped the submarine. To me, this is part of the fun of a long-running film series. Like Bond or the Marvel films, devouring each new entry and parsing out the good and bad things that make it unique helps us better understand what we love about them, and absolutely is part of the fun. And while Fate isn’t as good as the previous three films in the series, it is still an extremely entertaining film. Both the Cuba and New York sequences are among the series’ best, but having most of the problems in the third act is really what will leave a bitter taste in some mouths.
Equally important to me is that we were just a Marky Mark, Seth Green, and Mos Def away from a full Italian Job reunion.
Fate of the Furious opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.