NB: The following contains spoilers for Fast & Furious 8 and other Fast films.
The Fast & Furious movies aren’t generally memorable for their plots, so we generally file them under their loopiest action sequences. The 2001 original? That’s the one where Vin Diesel jumps a train with a car that looks like something out of Mad Max. Fast Five? That’s the one where the whole of Rio’s destroyed by a car dragging a huge safe on a chain, and where The Rock and Vin Diesel punch each other for five straight hours.
As for this year’s Fast & Furious 8 – or The Fate Of The Furious, or Fast 8, or F8 – we’ll probably remember it as The Film Where Vin Diesel Won A Race While Driving Backwards On Fire. In terms of style and tone, Fast 8 is a continuation of the things we’ve come to expect from the franchise since its unofficial reboot, Fast 4. Back in the late 2000s, the series appeared to be running on empty: both Paul Walker and Vin Diesel had left by the third film, Tokyo Drift, and its producers seemed to be quickly running out of ideas. What more was there to do with a franchise about young men driving Japanese cars, very quickly, in straight lines?
Fortunately for Universal, director Justin Lin had the answer. Fast & Furious (2009) took the emphasis away from illegal street racing and refocused on the concept of a multi-cultural gang of car-crazy outlaws. Vin Diesel reprised his role as the group’s gruff-voiced father figure, Dominic ‘Dom’ Turretto, the leader to an unlikely but oddly likeable array of computer geeks (Chris Bridges’ Tej), expert drivers (Paul Walker’s Brian) and clueless braggarts (Tyrese Gibson’s Roman). Their interactions are pure soap opera, the movies’ action set-pieces like a hacked copy of Grand Theft Auto.
That 2009 entry laid the groundwork for Fast Five, an unexpectedly huge global success which cemented the franchise’s template of world locations, big stunts and strange shifts of allegiance. This latter point has kept the Fast movies going ever since: in Fast Five, Dwayne Johnson was introduced as an indescribably huge government agent charged with capturing Dom’s crew, until the end, when he suddenly switched sides and helped them all escape.
Fast & Furious 6 saw Dom’s lover and partner in crime Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) return from the grave as a stone-cold assassin set on putting a bullet between Dom’s eyes. Following her brush with death in the fourth film, she’d been somehow reprogrammed by villain Owen Shaw’s Jedi mind skills – at least, until Fast 6‘s final act, where she came to her senses and started liking Dom again.
Fast 7 drafted in Jason Statham as another assassin bent on killing Dom and his friends, but in Fast 8, it turns that Statham isn’t really a bad sort after all (we’ll gloss over the bit where he murdered gang member Han – Han Seoul-Oh – in horrific fashion). The same film hinges on another villain, Charlize Theron’s Cipher, who has such an emotional stranglehold over Dom that the gang’s surly pappa bear becomes the latest character to switch sides. Much of Fast 8‘s slam-bang action therefore springs from Dom’s mystifying personality shift, in which he turns on the friends he’s spent the past 16-or-so years driving around with at ludicrous speeds.
We’re therefore at a point in the Fast franchise where four major characters have shifted from villain to hero or vice versa. If you count Statham’s brother Owen (Luke Evans), who briefly reappears in Fast 8 to help out the good guys, we’re up to five characters; look further afield, and you’ll find DSS agent Riley (Gina Carano) switch from Hobbs’ side to the dark side in Fast 6. With Fast 8 laying waste to large sections of Manhattan and blasting out enough emissions in Russia to melt what’s left of the polar icecaps, and you might be forgiven for wondering where on earth the franchise can go next. If we follow Fast logic, the next movie will see Charlize Theron’s flinty-eyed villain, Cipher, return as yet another member of Dom’s team, while – who knows – Tej or Mr Nobody take their turn to play the villain.
One thing Fast 8 does highlight is how lost Vin Diesel’s beginning to look in his own franchise.
Sure, his character is pivotal to the plot – it involves his infant son being used as leverage by Cipher, after all – but he spends much of the movie on his own, either angrily driving around in his muscle car or glowering at Charlize Theron. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, on the other hand, prove to be the movie’s surprise double-act; they’re sparky and natural in every scene they share together. Johnson gets some of the funniest scenes when he’s on his own, while Statham gets what is arguably the most effective action sequence – even if John Woo got there first with the whole “carrying a baby through a screaming gunfight” routine with Hard-Boiled 25 years ago.
Over on her flying lair, Charlize Theron provides a rare instance of a memorable villain: all icy resolve and murmured threats, she manages to stick a pin through the whole franchise with a single line: “This whole saving the world, Robin Hood thing you’ve been doing lately: it’s bullshit. It’s not you…”
Seriously though, how many Fast & Furious villains can you even name? The little guy in 2 Fast 2 Furious with the rat in a bucket and the blowtorch? The scowly guy behind the desk in Fast Five? Luke Evans’ Abercrombie model in a go-kart from Fast 6? We love the Fast movies, but let’s face it, none of them are exactly Hannibal Lecter. Theron at least brings weight and charisma to Cipher, and it’s certainly no accident that director F Gary Gray and his team have let her survive to appear in another movie.
Because let’s face it, there was always going to be another one – as we type this, Fast 8’s already crossed the $1bn mark at the global box office. The current direction, it seems, is away from high-speed heists and towards cyber-terrorism and espionage – the kind of high-wire spycraft long practiced by Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible franchise. As well as more absurd, physics-defying stunts – and lord knows how the series is going to keep thinking of coming up with new ones – there’ll be the same friendship, bickering and occasional fights between the Fast films’ multi-cultural family of heroes. And it’s this aspect, as over-egged and cheesy as it sometimes is, that makes the Fast films what they are: behind all the explosions, there’s a certain amount of warmth and good-naturedness.
All the same, we can’t help but wonder whether Vin Diesel’s being edged out a little. Universal has clearly recognised the potential of Johnson and Statham’s double-act, since the studio is said to be givning the pair their own spin-off movie, which will also feature Charlize Theron (probably as their best friend or something, if the current trend continues). As the franchise moves away from muscle cars and street races and increasingly into the realms of hacking, planes, submarines and tanks, surly petrolhead Dominic Toretto’s beginning to look increasingly out of his depth.
Then again, Fast 8 did feature that scene where Dom won a race in a 70-year car that was practically melting all around him. Dom’s clearly fire-proof and possibly even immortal. So who knows? Whether the crew keep hunting down cyber-criminals or blast off into space – an idea that writer Chris Morgan hasn’t exactly ruled out – maybe there’ll still be a place for grumpy old Dom. He is a part of the family, after all.