Charlize Theron and Vin Diesel in The Fate of the Furious.

The Fast and the Furious 8 feels like series filler

The latest installment in the franchise is simultaneously convoluted and empty.

Charlize Theron and Vin Diesel in The Fate of the Furious.
Charlize Theron and Vin Diesel in The Fate of the Furious.

2 stars

I suppose I should open this with a shameful admission of guilt: I had never, prior to seeing The Fate of the Furious, seen a single movie from the Fast and the Furious franchise. I honestly don’t know how this possibly could’ve happened. Despite clocking in years working at a video store on top of years as a film critic (not to mention a period of disarray in CEGEP where I would go to the Dollar Cinema daily and watch whatever the fuck was on, even if that meant Epic Movie), I never once sat down and watched a single minute of any of them. I don’t think it was intentional, but then again, the space they take up culturally is so massive at this point that it had to have been (at the very least) subconscious avoidance.

I also don’t have a driver’s licence, which I guess makes it akin to a teetotaler reading the collected works of Bukowski. I suppose it could happen, but why bother?

That said, it’s pretty easy to pick up on the broad strokes of the series just through cultural osmosis. I knew that the series had long moved from simple street-racing to intense, pull-out-all-the-stops action extravaganzas. I knew that each movie was designed to top the previous, often by pulling out another bald action star in order to load the bases. I knew that the series has a healthy amount of self-awareness, but exists nowhere near self-parody — in other words, those involved might know the movies are stupid, but any and all stupidity is trumped by awesomeness. And finally, I knew from the exhaustive summary that my Fast and the Furious-loving +1 gave me while we were waiting in line for the eighth opus in the series that family is the most important thing.

It’s also clear that double-crosses and allegiance-switching is a pretty big part of the narrative drive of these films. The Fate of the Furious spends almost 40 minutes retooling allegiances and reorganizing moving parts in order to make an eighth madcap race around the world possible. This one begins with Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel) living in perfect bliss with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in Cuba. The bliss doesn’t last long, however, when a mysterious cyberterrorist named Cipher (Charlize Theron) sinks her claws into the loyal Dom and gives him an ironclad reason to turn his back on the family. Soon, Dom is mucking up a mission to steal an EMP in Germany, putting Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in jail and the rest of the team (Ludacris, Tyrese and Nathalie Emmanuel) in jeopardy. With government operative Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new assistant Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) in tow, the Furious tear through various exotic locations in fancy cars… and also a tank.

The Fate of the Furious suggests that the perpetual game of oneupmanship that these movies play with each other has an endpoint. With so many characters and moving parts to consider, the film spends an inordinate amount of time tracking the motivations and convoluted twists of its increasingly tangled narrative web. On one hand, good for them for imbuing some ambition and quasi-operatic shading to a series that was originally about DVD player thieves; on the other hand, this is not and will never be One Hundred Years of Solitude, and most of this operatic treachery business walks a razor-thin line between the necessary and the fully expendable.

If the general consensus is that these movies are tremendously fun, then Fate of the Furious falls short of the mark by some margin. The action scenes are, as expected, extremely elaborate and far-fetched, yet the script constantly holds the audience’s hand by having the characters yell excited platitudes as if to confirm that what we’re seeing is completely insane. A scene in which Cipher takes over thousands of self-driving cars and lays waste to New York City is insane enough as it is; insert shots of Ludacris and Rodriguez going “Damn!” and “This bitch is crazy!” over and over again aren’t necessary. It feels rote and by-the-numbers for something so insane, especially when you consider that two of its major action set-pieces are ripped directly from Hard-Boiled (or Shoot ‘Em Up) and Kill Zone 2.

If the Fast and the Furious series were a television show, Fate of the Furious would feel like one of those mid-season episodes where the narrative just treads water as if the episode order somehow didn’t quite match up to the story they needed telling. Even more blatant than this sense of generalized exhaustion is the way the film is slowly setting up the pins for the next episode. It brings in a new Paul Walker analogue in the form of Little Nobody (a character so useless the movie goes out of its way to make his name an insult) and clearly sets up the next film by letting its underwritten villain remain underwritten (Cipher is thought to be a group of hackers at the beginning, then revealed to probably just be Charlize Theron — you can bet your sweet ass that it’ll end up being a group in the ninth film). It just feels cheap and disposable somehow, even though its entire reputation has been built up as essentially the greatest, most gonzo version of a disposable action flick imaginable. Go figure.

What’s mainly missing from Fate of the Furious is a sense of purpose. While I don’t expect anything transcendent from the eighth installment in anything, so many of the defining traits of this film seem like contractually mandated automatisms that it’s difficult to perceive the film as being part of a franchise where everything can (and frequently does) happen. The sense of wonder and awe (and family — never turn your back on family) that everyone assured me was the heart and soul of the franchise is nowhere to be found here. I’m not in a position where I can really compare and contrast, so here’s about all the advice I can muster: don’t start with this one. ■

The Fate of the Furious opens in theatres on Friday, April 14. Watch the trailer here: