When Furious 7 came out in 2015, it felt like a dangerous time for the Fast and Furious franchise. Paul Walker was vital to what made the series great and it was unclear if it could survive without him. While our collective affection for Walker may have made us easier on that movie than it deserved, Furious 7 did prove that the franchise could find a way forward. Now, the first Walker-less installment, The Fate of the Furious, proves that the series can survive, but that it has to make some big changes to do it.
Admittedly, some of those changes don’t have anything to do with the film’s content. The franchise has struggled to find a voice since director Justin Lin left after the sixth film and Fate‘s director, F. Gary Gray, isn’t quite up to the task. Though he learned a thing or two about filming car chases with his 2003 remake of The Italian Job, he’s no Lin. He could be forgiven for a certain lack of style, but his camera placement during fight sequences often comes very close to ruining them. Like many modern action directors, he puts the camera way too close to the action, forcing viewers to spend their time deciphering the blur of movement onscreen instead of enjoying the stunt work. The rapid-fire editing doesn’t help the situation either and while it creates a sense of energy, it does so at the expense of letting the hits really land. Gray fares slightly better in the chase scenes, but he often makes the mistake of noticeably speeding up the action or relying too heavily on CGI. Nobody expects these films to actually drive a nuclear submarine through an ice field, but part of what made earlier installments so appealing was watching the crazy maneuvers real drivers could pull off.
Still, the action is only part of what makes these movies successful and Gray mostly does a fine job letting the Fast family do what it does best. Although, there is only so much he can do with Vin Diesel. The actor has always done imposing and serious well, but he’s not great at dialogue. Without Walker, he is forced to become the franchise’s heart and he’s not quite up to it. Granted, he gets some genuinely effective moments of menace and brooding in Fate, but his stoic hero act only works as well as his scene partners and while Charlize Theron doesn’t get to show much range as the villainous hacker, Cypher, she easily covers for Diesel’s shortcomings.
Thankfully, though, writer Chris Morgan seems acutely aware of Diesel’s limited abilities and uses Cypher to almost completely remove Dom from the equation. While the reason Cypher so easily convinces Dom to abandon his “family” is too good to spoil here, suffice to say that it’s juicy, surprising and strikes at the very core of this franchise’s meaning. Most importantly, though, it allows the more enjoyable costars to step in and fill the void.
The Fast movies have built quite an ensemble in its 16-year run and Fate expertly exploits it. Besides a number of satisfying and surprising cameos, the core family members are reliable as ever. Tej (Ludacris) and Roman’s (Tyrese Gibson) banter is always a good source of comic relief, and newcomer Scott Eastwood does a solid job of filling the handsome, goofy white boy role Paul Walker practically invented. However, as he has for the last 3 films, Dwayne Johnson as FBI agent Hobbs quietly and effortlessly makes the case for why he should be the franchise’s leading man. Though the film begins with Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), the movie doesn’t really come alive until Johnson appears, using his massive bulk to help Hobbs’s daughter’s soccer team intimidate their pink-clad opponents.
Still, while Johnson has pretty much perfected the appealing mix of brawler and softie that has made him a star, shockingly, Statham almost beats him at his own game. In a scene that is either homage or an outright rip-off of the climactic action sequence of John Woo’s 1992 film, Hard Boiled, Statham swings between badass and teddy bear as he punches and kicks his way through bad guys. It’s perhaps one of the best scenes this franchise has ever produced and while Diesel will probably never quit playing Dom, these movies wouldn’t suffer if Johnson and Statham became the macho, bickering co-parents of the Fast family.
While that’s fairly unlikely, it is clear that the Fast franchise has to seriously consider what it wants to be going forward. The Fate of the Furious is clearly a transitional film and while the ending gives us some hint about the next installment’s plot, it’s unclear exactly what family dynamic it will settle into long-term. This franchise may have begun as a showcase for fast cars and the scantily-clad women who like to dance around them, but as time has gone on, it’s also become more and more about family. The series’ willingness to evolve is precisely what’s allowed it to survive so long. Now it needs to figure out what to become next.