If a franchise's IQ could be measured, most action-packed movie series would likely score pretty low, but the never-ending, ever-elasticized run of Fast and Furious flicks now feels like the prime example of something fundamentally stupid that has somehow become fantastically smart. Sure, these pics might fail basic math, biology, and physics classes (if they even bothered to show up), but they're fuelled by a buzzing energy that turns awesome ambition into clever creativity. While an action sequel that tries to outdo its predecessor by way of becoming bigger and louder is standard practice, of course, the Fast and Furious franchise has taken its thin premise and spun it into a fully focused game of wondrous one-upmanship.
The Fate of the Furious, as wild an eighth entry as any franchise has ever unleashed, features a massive set piece on the busy streets of Manhattan where an army of vehicles, some with people behind the wheel and others empty, are controlled remotely by Charlize Theron's hacker extraordinaire villain, leading to a battle with the protagonists who have just been given the keys to a fully stocked government garage. It's a sensational sequence and a raucous redefining of the word carnage, but it's also a direct riff on series superhero Dom's earlier statement that driving fancy is a matter of the driver, not the car.
Pitting the supposedly world's best drivers against a swath of driverless cars is a delightfully novel concept and director F. Gary Gray squeezes every bit of eclectic excitement out of the idea, including a bonus bit where cars are launched from a multi-story parking garage, leading to a bird's eye view shot of an automobile apocalypse that feels like the franchise's version of a Pollack painting.
Such absurdity seems ripe for mocking, but The Fate of the Furious so admirably attends to its primary themes and so relentlessly pushes its engine of imagination in the action department that it becomes the rare mega-blockbuster capable of sticking so stringently to a formula and yet still feeling fresh.
That surprising freshness stems from the set pieces that appear grander and goofier than ever before, including one sterling example. No one has likely ever conceived of, let alone shot, edited, and put into a finished feature film an action sequence as zanily zippy and weirdly endearing as the one here in which Jason Statham violently dispenses of several henchmen on board a luxury plane while carrying a baby in a car seat. Statham's character, who was the main villain of the last movie, takes multiple breaks amidst the killing to check on the baby and make silly faces in what is surely the craziest comic moment of Statham's entire career. It shouldn't work, it can't work, but it does because this franchise is all about performing dangerous stunts in service of family.
Even though the whole concept seems to brazenly invite ridicule, the series proudly maintains its thematic consistency in the wackiest of ways. As core story elements go, cars and family lead to pretty open roads, something these movies really take to heart. Each piece of this eighth entry's plot pertains to family, which results in everything from the aforementioned baby action to Dwayne Johnson's Hobbs coaching his daughter's soccer team to a cameo by Helen Mirren. To call it silly and syrupy would be a Johnson-sized understatement, but it's equally impressive that such sensational sentimentality in so wantonly violent a film franchise fits so comfortably.
What began as a cornball way to tie the casts of the franchise's disparate chapters together has grown into an unbreakable code woven through every aspect of the characters' motivation. Vin Diesel's Dom and Michelle Rodriguez's Letty, now the series' only active onscreen couple, discuss having a child of their own in this chapter and later Dom turns against his "family" on the basis of, well, family. The Fate of the Furious is so wrapped up in the subject that it's amazing Gray and screenwriter Chris Morgan find time for much car action, but weaving the two together has become Morgan's speciality.
When it comes to said action, the franchise reaches its most profoundly preposterous peak with a colossal romp around a frozen Russian arms base that houses a nuclear submarine. It's as oversized and entertaining as any set piece a blockbuster has unleashed in ages, an arctic automobile adventure with ice in its veins and popcorn in its gas tank.
Gray isn't as beautifully bold with the camera as Furious 7 director James Wan was, but he brings a mammoth scope and scale to the action here while coolly inserting so many character moments that he always keeps the lively family dynamic clearly in his sights. This is what makes the movie work as well as it does, an infectious eagerness to showcase the entire enterprise’s ability to make good on the double-edged promise of auto action and cheesy camaraderie.
The Fast and Furious octology has a vitality now that many first sequels struggle to achieve and this lithe longevity is the result of how effortfully the franchise commits to its focused formula. Most blockbuster franchises use subsequent entries to expand on key marketable elements (no one’s going to accuse Michael Bay’s ongoing Transformers series of not being committed to the art of surrounding CGI metal with extreme explosions), but there’s something uniquely nutty about a series that turns family into fuel.
While praising one of these movies is an act that assumes an implied acceptance of extreme silliness, I simply can't shake this feeling that The Fate of the Furious has alchemically altered idiocy to resemble intelligence, not just in the commercial ways that super-sized Hollywood blockbusters often do, but in creative ways as well.
This isn't just a simple case of mechanically serving the audience an enlarged portion of the usual meal; it's a sub-sized thesis on how to take a franchise's subjects and themes to new and satisfying places and how to rev a cinematic engine so smartly that a seventh sequel purrs proudly when it really should be merely chugging along. There’s an intangible element in play here. Let's call it the power of family, which sounds just corny enough to fit a franchise that so farcically fuses fury and fun.