Remember the opening of Fast & Furious 7? Deckard Shaw (a new-to-the-series Jason Statham) says some comforting words to his comatose, bed-ridden Brother. As he leaves, a tracking shot follows him down the corridor, into the elevator and outside the hospital, revealing the carnage he’s left in his wake. It’s a great sequence and sets up Statham as the film’s bad guy: a seemingly indestructible powerhouse who pops up at interval’s throughout, hell bent on revenge for his Brother’s condition like a cockney Terminator. He almost runs away with the film and makes for a great villain – something he very rarely plays.
Enter Fast & Furious 8 (or the much better The Fate Of The Furious overseas) in which Statham is, via some convoluted reasoning, now recruited to assist Dom and his team. By the end of the film this relentless former-baddie’s past as, actually, a disturbed hero will be vaguely alluded to and he’ll rescue a crying baby, shooting and coo-chee-cooing his way out of an aeroplane full of henchmen. This kind of cheap revisionism would normally destroy a film’s integrity. In fact Fast 8, like it’s predecessors, drops these kind of credibility-testing moments like The Wolf Of Wall Street dropped F-bombs. Why then, doesn’t it matter? Despite any of the above, I’m a huge fan the Fast series and loved this.
This time around we have the group – headed by Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs – pursuing Vin Diesel’s surrogate father figure Dom, who’s seemingly joined forces with evil Cipher (Charlize Theron). We know Dom’s insistent loyalty to ‘family’ means that this is surely a begrudging betrayal but, for reasons initially unknown, he leads the cast on a chase which takes in New York and the arctic Barents Sea.
The core of the plot means that strangely, although the face of the franchise, Diesel is omitted from a lot of the fun as he’s resigned to scowl under Theron’s spell for much of the runtime. ‘Spell’ in this case being the operative word as Theron pitches Cipher as almost possessed in her coldness. The Furious films don’t exactly have a great rogue’s gallery of villains but she certainly stands out. Dispassionate and detached and in one scene, brutally amoral, Cipher makes a good opponent in her and Dom’s battle of wills. Fortunate since they share a lot of their screen time. Dom’s usual partner Brian O’Connor is obviously no longer a part of the action and despite a couple of touching references, Paul Walker’s absence is definitely felt at times. Scott Eastwood, whilst watchable enough, doesn’t quite succeed in the daunting task of filling his shoes. Understandable since Walker was arguably a more prominent staple than Diesel. Anybody would struggle to replace him eight films in.
This leaves the heavy lifting to the combined chrome-dome charisma of Johnson and Statham. Fast Five’s elevation of the series from grounded if repetitive street-race saga to frenetic, OTT globe-trotter was in no small part, thanks to The Rock. His natural affability gave the fifth film a massive boost which he’s taken and ran with since. He’s no different here, whether being overly competitive coaching his Daughter’s football team or trading verbal blows with Statham, this series would severely backslide without him.
The Stath himself was a welcome addition last time around and his aforementioned retconning to goodie doesn’t detract from this. Knowing how to utilise the cast is something this franchise does best, whether that’s bringing back Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody (allowing Russell to enjoy every minute of his latter career comeback) or understanding viewers will want to see Statham in on the fun this time, rather than opposing it. Likeable as ever, Statham even manages to furnish his scenes with the underused comedy prowess he displayed in the Crank films and more pertinently, 2015’s Spy. In fact, between this and the usual double-act bickering between Ludacris’ Tej and Tyrese Gibson’s Roman, the film is genuinely funny between the noise and carnage.
Which brings me to the real stars: the set-pieces. You probably thought it couldn’t get any bigger than the tank chase from the sixth film or any crazier than a supercar jumping between Abu Dhabi skyscrapers from the last one. You’d be right; at this point it would be like trying to make water wetter, but Fast 8 certainly has a good go. The opening street race (par for the course in every Fast film) is probably the best, most inventive in the series and the wrecking ball scene is brief but fun. The effects are mostly excellent but in a post Fury Road world, the CGI-enhanced action feels, ironically, like a step back at times. Mad Max has spoiled us between Fast films and it’s easy to pine for the practical dust-and-crunch chases it offered. The creative team seem to be aware of this to an extent and so the big, dominant set-piece in the arctic is essentially Mad Max On Ice. A multi-vehicle chase across an open plane, the influence is obvious but welcome and the sequence itself is as thrilling and logic-defying as you’d hope once the submarine turns up. Along with the zombie-car New York sequence and Statham’s one (and a half) man army (including TWO John Woo nods, no less), it’s one of the physics-defying highlights of a brainless but massively pleasurable film.
Which brings me to my initial pondering. How does the Furious franchise get away with it? Among the trailers which preceded my viewing was Transformers: The Last Knight. Only five films in and, although personally I have some time for them (but that’s a defence for another day) already you’d be hard pushed to find many people with anything but vitriol for Michael Bay and his disputing droid saga. At almost double the amount of instalments, the Fast movies – with their similar huge CGI set-pieces, similar non-stop vehicular smashes and similar throw-everything at the screen mentality – have managed to retain a lot of good will among audiences and critics alike.
The crux of it, it would seem, is that they are so good-natured, so inherently likeable and so careful to avoid some of Bay’s more unpleasant traits (sexism, racial stereotyping, randomly halting the action so that a character can smugly explain to the hero that “the law says I can bang your underage Daughter so there!”) that they can pretty much get away with anything. Fast 8 is no exception; as flawed as a brainless Summer blockbuster will inevitably be, but also as exuberant, passionate and fun. It’s a mis-conception to think films like this are easy to get right. Blockbusters from only the last few years have ticked all of the pre-requisite boxes on paper and still managed to be bland and un-engaging. This is most definitely neither of those things. It’s not going to persuade any naysayers but for a fun couple of hours at the cinema, Dom and family are still streets ahead of most competition.