The Fate of the Furious (2017)
Dir.: F. Gary Gray
Who ever thought that a generic, early-2000s racing film would spawn one of the biggest grossing, multicultural franchises in the new millennium thus far? While the series does attempt to generate some homoerotic soap opera character developments, ultimately, Furious fans come to the theater to see these films for the action set pieces, as each film attempts to one-up the last in crazy action hijinks and in increasingly unrealistic but hilariously awesome explosions, butt-kicking violence, and other general feats of extreme adrenaline-laden machismo. The newest installment in the automotive action franchise, The Fate of the Furious, picks up after Furious 7 leaves off, with the main premise of the narrative being that Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto turns on the rest of his “Family,” and his friends are the only ones who have the power to take him down. Charlize Theron plays the role of the puppet master pulling Dom’s strings, and the Furious Family must put an end to her reign of tech-based terrorism and her grip on Dom.
Whereas the premise seems engaging, the execution of The Fate of the Furious feels like a misfire on most levels, as the narrative unfortunately takes itself far too seriously, dipping its hand too heavily into the cookie jar of masculine soap opera that the franchise has always threatened to devolve into. While there are a couple of impressive set pieces, the pace is way off and the writing dwells on the kind of drama that insults the audience’s intelligence. It’s a step down from the last few Furious films, and though it has its moments of testosterone-filled bliss, it’s by and large a disappointing sequel.
Whereas the Furious franchise has thrived on deliberately dumb, over-the-top action sequences since at least Fast Five, this film decides to trade in about thirty to forty minutes of space that could have been utilized for these action set pieces for overly serious, drearily overwrought grit. Centered around Dom being forced to betray his family and act against them, these sequences suck away all of the life out of the film and generally diminish the entertainment value of the rest of the narrative. I kept having flashbacks to some of the worst seasons of The Walking Dead, a similar beast in terms of popularity and massive commercial success. That show is notorious for trying to be both high-minded prestige drama while simultaneously pumping out pulpy, gory b-movie thrills. Up until this point, the Furious franchise maintained an air of self-awareness: it knew it was crazy, and it knew it was impossibly choreographed and thought up. Here, the attempts at dark drama and bleak, dire character machinations flounder under Vin Diesel’s poor attempts at delivering dramatic heft, coupled with the jarring tone that comes with Dom’s betrayal. The film attempts to hype him up as a big bad, but it all feels so insincere, especially considering that most of the series’ previous villains, Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbes and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw included, return here as protagonists to aid against Dom’s sudden shift in allegiance. The latter two actors seem to be the only ones who know what film they’re actually in, as their scenes are admittedly incredible, and the pair especially have great chemistry together. Tragically, since the clear majority of the film remains more concerned about Dom going against the Furious family, the rest of the film only receives brief moments to shine.
When the action scenes do occur, they’re generally up to par with what viewers saw in the last couple Furious entries, though it’s just such a shame that so much focus was shifted away from the entertainment aspect the franchise has cultivated through tons of goodwill with fans and continuous upping of each previous film’s ante. There are a couple of interesting sequences that are not in the main trailer that I will not spoil, as they’re best experienced going in blind, but I felt generally let down by the action on the whole. This could be partially due to the pacing issues that come with the screenplay and what I could only assume to be Diesel’s creative influence taking control of the film away from what audiences demand, but it could also partially because of the relatively passionless directing style. Justin Lin and James Wan both showed that they could skillfully direct the craziness of the action set pieces while still providing just enough narrative flow and character development to satisfy the basic screenplay requirements for a plot. This was welcome in a series that has always treated its plot second, and its action and car racing sequences first. Here, F. Gary Gray treats this film like it’s a profound turn for the franchise when really it’s just a misguided attempt at delivering a darker premise that never fully pays off. I believe that in this process, Gray forgot what the Furious franchise is all about: explosions, car chases, and brisk violence. These scenes do occur, but not at the frequency Furious fans have come to love and expect; thus, the film fails to deliver on the hype its trailers showed.
I’ve talked a lot about the negatives of the film, but it was not quite a train wreck (note to Furious producers: give us an actual train wreck. That'd be awesome). I did enjoy the arc that Michelle Rodriguez’s character Letty went through, even if it was just a necessary byproduct of Dom’s change of alliance. I don’t normally consider her to be a good actress, but she seemed to put forth a lot more effort emoting and conveying how distraught Letty becomes upon witnessing the events that unfold than Diesel did at becoming the family’s new enemy. Kurt Russell’s return is a welcome one, as well as the return of Johnson and Statham, all three of which have been in countless action films that focus on the cheese that this franchise thrives on. There is a prison scene with the latter two actors that probably features the best action sequence in the whole film which doesn’t involve vehicles or explosions. (I'd be lying if I said I'm not craving a spinoff revolving around either Hobbes and/or Deckard, as these two are by far the highlights of the screen.) Charlize Theron enters the franchise as cyber-terrorist Cypher, but she honestly doesn’t bring anywhere near as much spectacle as the Deckard brothers did in the last couple of films, nor does she provide the kind of political and technical intrigue the screenplay seems to want to bring to bear. And of course, Diesel tries to sell an emotional range that he simply does not have as an actor, and he comes off as forced and arrogant rather than nuanced and empathetic in his portrayal of Dom living life off the edge and working against his family.
While The Fate of the Furious is not necessarily a bad film, it’s definitely a creative step back for the franchise. It tries to have its cake and eat it too with its own delusions of grandeur to blame. Big blockbuster franchises always run the risk of alienating their fans to try to gain a bigger audience or earn more box office income, but instead of simply selling out, the film tries the opposite: it attempts to target much more niche and high-minded demographic, aimed toward bigger stakes and darker character dramas. While I would say the soap opera-esque character drama does contribute to the franchise’s endearment, never should it become as dark and brooding as seen here. For someone new to the franchise or hoping to catch a good action flick, I’d recommend just watching Fast Five through Furious 7 on streaming or through renting them. For as bad as the original few Fast and Furious films may be in hindsight and without nostalgia goggles, at least they were consistent in the type of film they presented. The Fate of the Furious is just an overacted, overwritten mess that dilutes the growing legacy of the franchise, contributing next to nothing meritable to it.