By Preston Wilder
Sequels are a plague, but sometimes you have to do things more than once (eight times, say) before you get them right. Fast & Furious 8, also known as The Fate of the Furious, is the amiable pinnacle of this long-running franchise, working mostly in the bigger-better-faster mode of the last four instalments but kicking off with a street race – to evoke the petrolhead vibe of the now-17-year-old original – and ending with an improbably touching reference to Brian, the character associated with the late Paul Walker, whose name and (why not?) whose spirit now gets transferred to Dominic Toretto’s pride and joy, his baby son.
Dom himself (played, of course, by Vin Diesel) is a kind of bald-headed Pollyanna, spreading joy and making everyone feel good about themselves. “This is the Cuban spirit!” he declares approvingly to a Cuban (our story begins in Havana), and the Cuban beams. Another, less amiable Cuban has a beef with Dom’s friend, and Dom intervenes; a brawl seems likely, but instead our hero challenges the man to a street race – he’s a racer, not a fighter – which he wins in a thrilling finish, albeit with his souped-up car in flames. You have earned my car, says the tough-but-fair Cuban, handing over his keys, and you have earned my respect – but Dom, bless his heart, hands the keys back, a magnanimous smile lighting up his face beneath that bald dome. “Keep your car. Your respect is good enough for me.” What a guy. What a guy.
All this is before we even get to the opening title – but that glimpse of Dom the nice guy and peacemaker is necessary because most of the film finds him in the opposite camp, ranged against his Fast & Furious comrades. “I saw that look in his eyes, I’ve seen that look before,” Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) tells the others: “Dominic Toretto just went rogue!” It’s like in Spider-Man 3 when Spider-Man turned into Evil Spider-Man – and in fact the analogy is apt, because F&F has been Marvel-ised (or DC-ised, if you want to be pedantic). It’s not just Dom going bad; there’s also a supervillain bent on world domination, namely Cipher (Charlize Theron) whose dark plan – making the world’s nuclear powers accountable to her – recalls Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse. More hilariously, Cipher knows about Dom’s obsession with “family” (don’t we all?) and argues convincingly that it’s just “a biological lie”, a Stone Age remnant with no place in the modern world. Lone wolf, super-hacker, digital terrorist, Cipher is 21st-century atomisation at its most alarming.
The film feels up-to-the-minute in other ways too: the best action sequence in a movie that teems with them comes when Cipher declares “zombie time”, hacking into cars and turning them into weapons – a real-life concern as the future looks increasingly driverless. Cars move in packs like a street gang, muscling other cars out of the way, then take suicide leaps from a fourth-floor car park; later there’s a similar scene, with Cipher using a nuclear submarine – not the nukes, but the sub itself – to crash into people (echoing both 9/11 and the recent spate of urban lorry attacks). The action is consistently clean and exhilarating, the credit going mostly to ace stunt co-ordinator Spiro Razatos, though it works dramatically as well: a massive explosion at the climax – following Dom’s unhappy exile, and emotional return to the fold – is downright cathartic.
Some may miss the gritty feel of The Fast and the Furious, but in fact the franchise has gained by expanding. Everyone gets their time in the sun here, even Michelle Rodriguez as the rather perfunctory romantic interest (“I know one thing: you love me!” she tells Dom, calling him back from the darkness, and he looks stricken). Johnson and Jason Statham – completing the central trio of loveable slapheads – banter delectably, dissing each other as “twinkletoes” and a “tea-and-crumpets-eating sumbitch” respectively. Tyrese Gibson as Roman is vexed by the fact that the rest of the crew have made Interpol’s 10 Most Wanted, whereas he’s at No. 11. Helen Mirren turns up with a bad cockney accent. Statham fits the baby with giant earphones, pumping in soothing baby music to disguise the sound of gunfire. “All right, little man,” he sighs, picking up the infant like Chow Yun-Fat in Hard Boiled: “This is going to be a little scary – but it’s going to be a lot of fun!”.
Fast & Furious 8 strikes me as the best globe-trotting, $150 million blockbuster in ages, blending James Bond, comic-book movie, comedy and heart with some bone-crunching fights and the spectacle of cars being abused. (Nor is the petrolhead vibe gone completely, see e.g. Roman’s “I’m in love!” at the sight of a neon-orange Lamborghini.) Above all, it’s a film where the actors seem to enjoy each other’s company – and a vibe like that is lightning in a bottle, hard to fake or repeat ad infinitum. Vin Diesel will be 50 in July, and is already close to self-parody; a further sequel would only dilute the formula. It’s taken eight tries, but Fast & Furious finally seems to have got it right. Let’s leave it here, I reckon.
DIRECTED BY F. Gary Gray
STARRING Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron
US 2017 136 mins.