Fast Cars, Famiglia, and Fighting Franchise Fatigue: A conversation about "Fate Of The Furious"

City Paper

"The Fate of the Furious" is a movie so big and so ridiculous that it could only be reviewed by two critics. Buckle up and hit the NOS with City Paper's Dominic Griffin and Max Robinson as they go all in on "Fate of the Furious," the latest film in the "Fast and Furious: franchise, directed by F. Gary Gray and out now, right now, go see it.

Max Robinson: It's been nigh on 16 years since Vin Diesel's immortally sleeveless Dominic Toretto first graced the silver screen in the original "The Fast and the Furious." Seven movies later and with the passing of Paul Walker, you have to wonder what this crime-and-cars-turned-ridiculous-espionage franchise still has to say with its cast of automotive superheroes. With "Fate of the Furious," it turns out that it still has quite a bit to say.

Dominic Griffin: The last film, "Furious 7," ended on such a cathartic crescendo that the franchise could have easily rode off into the sunset forever. But there are no happy endings, only temporary chapter breaks. "The Fate of the Furious" begins as a charming but slight simulacrum of what we all love about these Fast films, keeping the tone light before plunging our heroes down the darkest road they've ever driven. The film is full of whizbang spectacle but doesn't skimp on the emotional theatrics that glue the car chases and explosions together. It's at once the funniest Fast film and the most difficult.

MR: I was relieved that director F. Gary Gray taking the reins on the franchise didn't result in a movie jarringly unlike what's come before. From the start, this is a Fast movie even if it gets goofier and heavier than the prior films in most respects. This is the first American studio film to shoot in Cuba since the embargo was lifted, and Gray gets the most mileage possible out of that in the opening, which is kind of a modern day street racing take on the "Ben Hur" chariot chase. For better or worse, gratuitous slobbering close-ups on nubile 20-something asses as engines rev in the foreground remain a hallmark of the series.

DG: The best way to describe this entry in the series is that it's a quintessential Fast film, only moreso. From the intensity to the goofy one-liners to the pathos, it's all ratcheted up to 11. The marketing materials have set up the premise well enough. While on his honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto encounters a mysterious blonde we'll come to know as Cipher, played with icy cool by Charlize Theron, channeling Sharon Stone and Taylor Swift in equal measure. Cipher shows Dom something on a smartphone screen and whatever he sees there makes him her puppet. When Agent Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) recruits Dom and his crew to steal an EMP, a device designed to send out a pulse that can shut down electronics in the immediate vicinity, Dom turns on his family and disappears with it, setting our heroes up against the only foe they're not prepared for—their leader.

MR: Concept-wise, "Fate of the Furious" is brilliant. Cipher's a terrific, menace-oozing villain, but pitting Dom against family—the thing he treasures above all else—is really inspired as a major conflict. While Dom's heel turn never quite hurts us as much as maybe it should, the movie does a great job shuffling the deck and throwing our heroes into an awkward alliance brokered by Kurt Russell's Affable White Dude Nick Fury-type Mr. Nobody, with last movie's major baddie Deckard Shaw (Jason goddamn Statham) and a few new and familiar faces. This Fast movie above all others felt the most like a comic book film, and Statham really compounded that for me—he's essentially the brooding but deep-down noble Victor Von Doom forced to help the Fast team's Fantastic Four.

DG: If someone had told me when the first film came out that there'd be an eighth Fast movie and that the plot would basically be the "Tower of Babel" story from the Justice League comics, but with Vin Diesel as Batman, I'd have laughed. But actually getting it on screen just elicited squees, gasps, and several moments where I had to cradle my face in my palms at what I was seeing. It's easy to criticize these films for being a little dumb, but their straightforwardness works to this outing's advantage. Being the eighth in a series, Gray and longtime Fast scribe Chris Morgan don't have to waste much time with prologue, relying on audience familiarity and leveraging pre-existing character dynamics for maximum dramatic effect. For a film nearly reaching the two-and-a-half-hour mark for run time, it's one of the tightest summer blockbusters in recent memory.

MR: It's a cruiserweight action flick where all the action set pieces felt rooted in the plot in a way you don't often see. Seemingly disposable portions of the movie come full circle by the time we're in the last 20 minutes and everything's all kind of in service of Dom vs. Cipher's philosophical battle about the validity of family ties. Honestly, if the film has a real issue, it's that a Surprise Character Death around midway through feels cheap and superficial in an otherwise well-devised plot.

DG: It's a particularly tone deaf misfire in a film that hits all the right marks elsewhere. Death, in general, is a weird thing for the Fast-verse. Paul Walker's passing means his character, Brian O'Connor, is permanently gone from the proceedings, and his real-life death looms larger than, say, the death of Han, whose murder fueled much of the last film. We're one movie beyond Deckard Shaw killing the franchise's most beloved character, but within an hour, the audience and the cast themselves seem content to forget this messy fact due in no small part to Statham's sheer charisma. If the film has another failing, it's that the writing doesn't go the extra step to make Shaw's turn more thematically relevant to Dom's arc this go around. That small alteration might have made this the best film in the series by a Cuban mile.

MR: I can forgive a lot just on the basis of how charming Statham is in this movie. Can we talk about The Rock for a minute? I find The Rock's gigantic body and freakish strength almost existentially terrifying. This is the third Fast movie with Agent Hobbs, and here more than in the prior two, he is just an unrelenting force of nature. Watching him tear a concrete fixture out of his cell just to do reps with it or shrug off a prison guard's bean bag rounds was astonishing. The entire prison riot sequence where he's just beating down cops and chasing after Shaw like a Samoan Terminator was wonderful and easily a high point of the series.

DG: He's got killer chemistry with Statham as well. Their new frenemy relationship fills the void most likely caused by Diesel and Johnson's real-life feud. I love that Hobbs' dogged quests to get his man seem to always end in soul-nourishing bromances. Maybe I'm reading into the casually implied homoeroticism too much, but it's amazing that the film leaves room for that interpretation and it never seems like a joke. The Fast-verse treats friendship, respect, and the very concept of family as the epoxy that bonds this multi-genre mishmash together. Since the last film cemented that fact so completely, this entire movie's challenge is to test those bonds in brutal ways that feel necessary to the franchise's continued existence. Dom's arc taxes the hell out of Diesel's performative limitations, but he does a bang-up job selling how serious a chapter this is without trying to convince the audience this is suddenly a Mike Leigh film.

MR: Diesel is kind of thrust into the spotlight in this installment in a really major way, and I dug how so much of the film is Dom as this ice-cold guy quietly waiting for the right moment to fuck over his blackmailers. We never reach the emotional heights of "Furious 7"—and how could we given how it's rooted in a real person's actual death—but the moment where Dom's family saves him was really powerful.

DG: These movies may be pretty obvious action flicks, with "Fate of The Furious" embracing every spy-fi thriller trope, but it's that core family at the center that makes it special. Dom and his crew could do a film set in the desert and make it a western. They could go back in time, into space, under the earth's core! None of it would be too far fetched if Dom still gave a speech about togetherness at a cookout in the end and everyone made fun of Tyrese. The cars are still vital to what makes a Fast film a Fast film, but in an uncertain world more divided than ever, it's that exaltation of "The Family," the very notion of fitting in somewhere and feeling at home, that keeps them relevant. You can plug and play pretty much anyone into this world and they’ll fit, like the best makeshift families.

MR: It's impressive how Theron, even with the massive star power associated with her, felt like a totally natural part of the universe Chris Morgan's been slowly building since "Tokyo Drift." To say nothing of Dame Helen Mirren who, without getting into specifics, understands exactly what kind of stupid summer action movie she's in and has a ball with it. We've come a long way from a "Point Break" knockoff about street racers stealing DVD players in Los Angeles.

DG: People complain about franchise fatigue and being fed up with big-budget Hollywood movies, but I love that you can leave a Fast film utterly breathless with your mind still racing, retracing the set pieces in your mind. I left theorizing where they could go next, what ridiculous actors they could cast, and what filmmakers they could get to come play with these big, expensive toys. The Fast films represent the absolute best tentpole moviemaking has to offer. Vin Diesel, Chris Morgan, and a host of rotating directors have birthed a cinematic universe just as rich (and arguably more emotionally satisfying) than Marvel's—and they don't have hundreds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's creations to work from. They started with a quarter-mile stretch of road and an intrinsically American adrenaline lust. You don't need Kurt Russell's high-tech God's Eye spy tech to see this franchise still has gas in the tank.

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