If there is one thing the world can admit, it is that back in 2001, at the release of the original The Fast and the Furious, it would have seemed an impossible pipedream that this unambitious remake of Point Break with fast cars would give birth to a billion-dollar franchise built on bombast and cheesy melodrama about ‘family’. But here we are, at the eighth instalment, with Straight Outta Compton’s F. Gary Gray at the helm, taking Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto and his team on a new, insane adventure.
Now, considering the unfortunate passing of Paul Walker during the production of the last film, Furious 7, the main question on everyone’s minds was where would Diesel and his writing team decide to take the franchise next. Firstly, it had to be respectful to the memory of Walker. Secondly, it had to spice things up a little; change the formula. However, it still had to up the ante on the insane action that came before, giving fans what they expect: superhero-level car stunt-work and action set-pieces that make a gymkhana look like Driving Miss Daisy.
So, it’s safe to say that Diesel and co. had their work cut out for them.
In these regards, how does Fast and Furious 8 fare? Well, this is where it gets a little complicated, in terms of my evaluation.
Firstly, as a narrative synopsis shows, the alteration to the status quo has firmly taken centre stage. This time, following the interference of Charlize Theron’s villainous hacker Cipher, Dom turns on his ‘family’, betraying them for reasons that are revealed through the course of the film. This time, it’s up to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Hobbs and Kurt Russell’s clandestine Mr. Nobody to muster up the team to take on Cipher and get to the bottom of Dom’s unforeseeable desertion.
With this change-up, one has to grant some appraisal to director F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Chris Morgan. They had to muster up something which fans wouldn’t expect, which is to have the man preaching about loyalty to the ‘family’ like it’s an eleventh commandment, act against that very vow.
However, as a result of this, there is a real tonal inconsistency that arises. As I said before, the film not only had to change the formula, but also keep the over-the-top action that fans are familiar with. This is where the clash occurs. For the introduction of Diesel’s conspiracy, and the reasons that it occurs, are factors that are meant to deliver real dramatic weight. It gets pretty dark, even for a film this inherently absurd. Nevertheless, from scenes of Diesel’s psychological trauma at the hands of Theron, we transition to scenes of Diesel, sporting armour and shield, blocking bullets and wielding a chainsaw like he’s Jason Voorhees’ military double.
There is a clear dialectic here, yet there is no synthesis of these two techniques. When the narrative attempts to ground its characters in some form of emotional complexity, and then thrusts them into an action beat involving a tidal wave of electronically controlled cars that, miraculously, do not kill a single person on the bustling streets of New York, the unbuckled suspension of disbelief starts to fly dangerously close to bewilderment, sometimes refusing the glee of the chaotic action.
It is at this point that I’d like to throw a spanner into the works (pun entirely intended, even Vin’s name is a pun so it’s allowed surely). I know I may seem like I’m being overly critical, but I do not want to give the impression that I only like some form of high-brow international cinema. I welcome the Fast and Furious movies because what they contain – over something like Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise – is a team that have superlative passion for the project they’re engaged in. The Fast and Furious crew are devoted to their fanbase and it comes through with every new instalment. These are the best kind of crowd-pleasing fares: films that are often self-aware, knowingly ridiculous, willingly next-level.
To bring this back to the tonal inconsistency, Fast and Furious 8 works best when it doesn’t involve the dark drama of Diesel and Theron’s arc. F. Gary Gray seems like he’s trying to pull off his David Fincher or Jonathan Demme, but it falls flat (the dialogue doesn’t help in this regard, verging towards histrionic melodrama than subtle wordplay). Yet when Gray turns the focus to Johnson and Jason Statham, who returns to play street-level anti-hero Deckard Shaw, the film picks up immensely and it is an absolute blast. In a recent interview, Johnson even stated how he plays the character of Hobbs with a knowing wink to the audience, that he ‘is in on it’. This shines through the cracks of the film’s screenplay. Churning out one-liners with Statham like it’s an 80s buddy cop serial, Johnson charges through the film, performing insane physical manoeuvres and charging into adversaries like he’s auditioning to replace Mark Ruffalo as Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. It’s all brilliantly fun and is exactly what the franchise needs.
Also, while I never mean to be totally subjective, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that I was a fan of Statham, and in this film, he too is in on the self-reflexivity. In the previous instalment, it felt like director James Wan didn’t know how to utilise the British action star, denying him much in the way of dialogue, leaving him in an inactive supporting role as a stoic villain. However, Gray substitutes this characterisation for something that fits Statham like a glove: playing a confident, quip-smart physical force that flips and kicks his way around like the spirit of Bruce Lee had possessed him. Look out for one particular scene on an airplane. It’s one of the best action scenes in the franchise and balances humour and physicality to its maximum potential.
That scene epitomises my thoughts on the film as a whole. It ditches the serious drama, doesn’t make us relate to the action in a personal way. This is not what people see the franchise for. Even in its action, one doesn’t want to see physics obeyed or realism applied. I believe it needs to be self-aware, shrewdly winking at its own resolute farcicality, willing to consent to a little laughter alongside it. Scenes with Statham and The Rock welcome this with open arms. This is the direction the franchise needs to go. I believe Fast and Furious 8 achieves a ratio of 50:50 in this regard. Now comes the chance to capitalise on this. The franchise is like an out-of-commission Rover, ready to fall by the way side. Inject it with the turbo of a humorous self-awareness, and it’ll boost way ahead of the pack.