You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and after the fun but tired Furious 7, the time has come for the Fast & Furious franchise to shake things up a little.
Just on a narrative level Fate of the Furious does this with a plot that finds Dom forced against his will into a bad guy role, giving the film a structure in which his various schemes must be stopped by his own team. This not only switches character dynamics in obvious ways, but also has the added bonus of an opportunity to see one of these movies from the villain's perspective. It’s a novelty plot that works.
This is good for the film overall, but it's an especially smart way to solve the series' emerging Vin Diesel problem. Dom's far and away the least interesting core character, particularly without Paul Walker’s balance and easier rapport with side characters. Separating Dom from the team allows him to have his little adventures while we benefit from even more fun ensemble interactions that aren't passively focused on being Vin Diesel's vanity fodder.
But it's also good for Vin Diesel and Dom in general. Dom's not the eternally cool cucumber we're used to in this one. His buttons get pushed, and he responds with a panic and anger that kind of highlights how little acting Diesel usually does in these. This is easy the most expressive he’s been yet in this series.
The need to shake things up leads to one huge problem however, one that will break the movie for some. To make up for the plot's Diesel-shaped hole, writer Chris Morgan brings Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw back as a reluctant part of the gang. I understand the temptation to do this. Statham is a huge draw, and as a wisecracking foil for The Rock (sorry Dom/Hobbs shippers, another F&F bromance has withered) he gets to have way more fun than last time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Statham so great in a movie.
But in a mythos revolving around the importance of family, it is a major foul to have the guy who murdered Han, and whose brother manipulated and used an amnesiac Letty, driving alongside this crew like bygones are just bygones. I like to think we're all pretty forgiving and this could have been softened with at least an acknowledging line or two. The fact that it's never resolved, or even brought up, makes me curious if the omission is intentional and Morgan has more complicated plans further down the line.
The film’s new additions are also a problem. Charlize Theron tries her best, but never gets beyond perfunctory. She’s absolutely evil, but there’s no real spark to her character. This should surprise no one though - this series hasn’t had a great villain since Cole Hauser.
Even worse is the awful addition of the atrocious Scott Eastwood, who feels like some kind of dickhead frat boy shoehorned into our beloved family by a rich uncle or something. The film makes the strongest attempts getting us to like him (i.e. Roman gives him a lot of shit), but he never offers any real value to the dynamic and comes off as superfluous at best and downright irritating at worst. And on that line of thinking, Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey is back and just as boring as she was in Furious 7. I guess we’re just stuck with two hackers for a while.
But everyone else who comes back gets stronger showings than they did in Furious 7. Roman is great, Tej is great, Letty is great and The Rock is super great. Things are definitely changing in the Fast & Furious world, enough that you only have to think back to part six to start feeling nostalgia. But there is a new magic in this one that was missing in Furious 7. It’s not all the way developed yet, but it’s getting there.
Just in terms of action and filmmaking, Fate continues the series tradition of crazy shit you never thought you’d see filmed in such a way that you can actually see it. This time the big set pieces involve a massive submarine chase and a sequence that involves an entire army of self-driving cars. Movie after movie, I never know how they could possibly raise the bar, and yet they do. This one has the added benefit of better than average hand-to-hand and gun combat. James Wan’s direction in Furious 7 was great. F. Gary Gray’s is better. There’s an edge to some of it that took me by surprise.
I won’t spoil them here, but the film has a lot of shocks for die hard fans of the series. Some big, some small. Despite changing so much from film to film, the series never ceases its admirable attempt to grow while never throwing anything completely away.
We’re almost at the point now where the original gang has been replaced with new faces, and yet it still remains The Fast and the Furious somehow. Not everything works, but the magic that made Fast 5 so special can’t last forever, and it’s smart of Chris Morgan to strike out in new directions. It’s possible the main driving issue that will anger longtime fans in this new entry will sort itself out in later sequels, but even if it doesn’t, there is too much to love in The Fate of the Furious to dismiss it completely due to its cavalier attitude towards Han’s death. This is still an amazing action series that never should have gotten this good in the first place. It is a lot less gay than it used to be, however, and that is a damn shame.