Seven cars crowd out an otherwise empty New York street.
In the midst of the carnage, all law-abiding citizens have taken cover. Only the outlaws remain, the powerhouses that rule the street. One black muscle car sits at the centre of this chaos. It stars menacingly at the five cars blocking its path. Behind that black car lurks the vanguard. Inside, a scruffy stubbled Englishman cracks his neck impatiently, waiting for action. The target car revs its engine. The drivers all kick into gear, and it becomes a game of reflexes.
There is an endearing charm to The Fast and the Furious as a blockbuster movie franchise. In many ways, it has become Universal’s own home-grown superhero franchise, albeit one that swaps out the capes for cars. A wry observer might suggest that the series is Diesel-powered, but that is not entirely true. The franchise runs on sheer main-lined ridiculousness, on the blurry line that falls somewhere between awesome and absurd. “High noon, but with cars…” is far from the most audacious scene in The Fast and the Furious 8, but it might be the most indicative.
Like a driver wrestling with a powerhouse engine, the series works best when it actively turns into the spin. Fast Five revived the franchise by removing the throttle and setting in motion a sense of escalation that threatens to send the characters into space before the conclusion of the series. In the meantime, The Fast and the Furious 8 settles for a neon orange Lamborghini being chased over ice by a nuclear submarine. There are points at which the whole thing threatens to fall apart like that surface ice, but the film moves just quick enough to stay above water.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Fast and Furious franchise has been watching the series effectively redesign itself over its run. The series has arguably kept the body mostly intact, but has taken every opportunity to swap out various elements underneath the hood. After all, this is a franchise that began as a weird low-rent thriller about street racers in Los Angeles, but which as built to confrontations involving electromagnetic pulses and nuclear footballs.
Some of these changes are tonal, the series swapping the earnestness of the earlier films for more self-aware patter. Some of these changes involve personnel, with the tragic passing of Paul Walker sidelining one of the original characters while plot developments in The Fast and the Furious 8 serve to push Vin Diesel to the periphery of the narrative. Indeed, the most valuable player in The Fast and Furious 8 turns out to be Jason Statham. The series could do a lot worse than to anchor itself in a new buddy dynamic between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson.
To be fair, the dynamic evolution of The Fast and the Furious is perhaps down to shifts behind the scenes. “It ain’t what’s under the hood that counts,” Dom reflects early in the film. “It’s who’s behind the wheel.” The series has been surprisingly lucky when it comes to directors, with each bringing their own style to bear on the film. Justin Lin had an uncanny awareness of space, clearing and crisply conveying where things were and in what direction they were moving at a given moment. James Wan had a strong sense of pacing in his action scenes, holding cuts just long enough.
The Fast and the Furious 8 is directed by F. Gary Gray, who admittedly lacks some the finer action movie sensibilities as Lin or Wan. His work is not as graceful as his two predecessors, his action scenes not as fluid. However, Gray brings his own sensibility to the movie’s set pieces. Gray is more interested in impact and collision than style and grace. In Gray’s action scenes, his muscle cars seem to be locked in mortal and visceral combat, squeezing and pressing and hammering against one another.
The action scenes in The Fast and the Furious 8 have an endearing roughness to them, a fascination with what happens when heavy objects hit one another while moving at high speeds. Early in the movie, the hacker Cipher suggests that Dom lives in the “ten seconds between the start and the finish” of a race, and there is something of that to Gray’s direction. Gray repeatedly and frequently employs slow motion shots between impacts in order to emphasise the physical contact. A car trips; it flips in slow motion; then it impacts upon the hard surface.
Gray treats the cars in The Fast and the Furious 8 almost like living animals. At one point, a sea of cars cascades through an urban centre. “It’s zombie time,” goads the mysterious hacker Cipher. It is a misleading analogy. If anything, the fleet of cars looks more like a tsunami from a Roland Emmerich film. However, these zombie cars push forward like wild buffalo. They brush against one another, the herd keeping everybody in line. “Collision avoidance system disabled,” warns one readout. It’s damn right.
At the climax of the film, Gray even throws in an affectionate homage to The Lion King, lovingly recreating a classic image of a proud lion leading to the defense of his endangered pride. The muscle car pounces over a snow bank, eclipsing the sun and saving the day. At one point in the film, Cipher likens herself to a crocodile lurking in a pool. She does not realise that she is wrestling with a pride of lions.
This sense of impact and contact applies even outside of these powerhouse vehicles. Repeatedly over the course of the film, characters are body-slammed on railings; unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects. Walls exist primarily for characters to hit against them, and to throw opponents against them. The soundtrack underscores the impact. The human body occasionally seems like a percussion instrument. (“I’m gonna beat your ass like a goddamn Commanche war drum!” Luke Hobbs threatens an opponent at one point in the film.)
Still, one of the most interesting aspects of The Fast and the Furious franchise is the strange thematic consistency that runs through the series. Even as the movies careen towards the absurdity, writer Chris Morgan has understood the core thematic appeal of the series. Whether it is about street racing or nuclear footballs, Morgan understands that The Fast and the Furious is about the ideas of family and fate. As such, these ideas become a weird through line that ties Vin Diesel behind the wheel of a souped-up car to Dwayne Johnson redirecting a submarine torpedo by hand.
The Fast and the Furious 8 certainly indulges in any number of ridiculous plot elements. A Russian nuclear base just happens to be taken over by “separatists”, so our heroes can go on a trigger-happy killing spree. A prominent foreign diplomat drives through a major United States city with a minigun built into his car, just so the movie can have an action scene. These elements only work because The Fast and the Furious 8 understands that the actual plot (as in “the things that happen”) are all secondary to the ideas of “family” and “fate.”
This allows the film to indulge in any number of ridiculous plot beats. When our heroes surround their lost member, trying to bring him back home, they all launch harpoons into his roaring sports car. The audience might wonder why every car in the fleet suddenly comes equipped with harpoon guns, or how these characters became crack shots, but they’d be misreading the scene. As far as The Fast and the Furious 8 is concerned, all of this can be justified to get to the literal image of a family unit trying to tie itself back together, reining in a lost member.
Of course, “family” and “fate” are hardly the most nuanced or specific of themes. There is a lot that can be done with those two ideas, and they can tie together anything from the most grounded psycho-drama to the most fanciful power fantasy. Morgan understands that, appreciating that he can largely get away with anything in the context of the series so long as it involves cars and can be brought back to those two themes. After all, the diverse and expansive cast of The Fast and the Furious series make an oddly endearing dysfunctional family unit.
For the ridiculousness of the plot, and the absurdity of the spectacle, Morgan is careful to streamline his character dynamics. All of the character beats and arcs within The Fast and the Furious 8 are extremely straightforward and predictable, but they work in large part because of that simplicity. Character have very simple relationships within the group dynamic, and there are enough characters that these superficial relationships never get a chance to grate. If the dynamic between Roman and Tej frustrates, then Roman can quickly bounce off new cast member “Little Nobody.”
The cast of the Fast and Furious franchise has grown so large that there is even room for several different family dynamics within the larger group. The core conflict in the film is driven by the fact that one character is caught between two families. The Fast and the Furious 8 takes the time to flesh out the family unit around recurring villains Deckard and Owen Shaw, not to mention fleshing out the government spook “Mister Nobody” by introducing a surrogate son figure.
Indeed, The Fast and the Furious 8 gets away with a lot because it understands that the heart of plot is a logical extension of this core theme of family. For a franchise built around the importance of family, it seems surprising that it took eight films to tell a story about the betrayal of that family. It doesn’t matter that the betrayal that drives The Fast and the Furious 8 feels cynical and transparent, or that it doesn’t actually affect the core dynamics too much. It just feels like a logic place for these characters to go, and provides a framework for a chase with a nuclear submarine.
Still, there are points at which The Fast and the Furious 8 threatens to collapse under the absurdity of all of this. This is most notably in the writing of Cipher, the film’s antagonist. In keeping with the modern blockbuster conventions codified by the Marvel films or Spectre, it is revealed that the hacker Cipher has been behind most of the recent traumatic events in the life of these characters. Dom and his family wiped out “two of [her] crews”, which suggests her own familial motivations.
The problem lies in the fact that The Fast and the Furious 8 is a kinetic action franchise where most of the action takes place out in the world. Cipher spends most of the film watching the action behind screens, directing via phone calls. She exists at a remove from the action, never quite getting the visceral showcase that a major villain deserves in a Fast and Furious film. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that the villains of the last two Fast and Furious films get more of a showcase in The Fast and Furious 8 than the villain of the film itself.
More than that, the script somewhat over-eggs the pudding in trying to construct Cipher as a convincing foil to our heroes. Given that the themes of the series are “family” and “fate”, Cipher has to align herself as opposed to those values. This leads to a number of extended monologues which feel heavy-handed, as if Cipher could really use a quality therapy session to talk through her issues with other human beings. She warns Dom that family is “a biological lie”, and seems more interested in destroying her family than in actually carrying out her eeevil master plan.
The Fast and the Furious 8 gives little thought to what Cipher’s motivations might be, beyond some vague desire for “accountability” that somehow explains why she wants to get her hands on a couple of nuclear missiles. Is Cipher an anarchist? Is Cipher a nihilist? Given that the Fast and Furious family is so driven by the idea of family, it makes sense that it should seem so unsure of what to do with Cipher. This is a character who actively rejects the very idea of family, which is something utterly alien to the franchise’s perspective.
More muddled is Cipher’s alignment against the idea of “fate.” After all, the idea of fate is something charming in theory and frustrating in reality. While the idea that everything has a place and purpose is reassuring, it exists juxtaposed with the ideals of autonomy and choice. If people have a predetermined fate, then none of their choices actually matter. That is why so many “chosen one” narratives tend to fixate upon the idea of a character choosing to embrace their fate.
However, aligning the villain against the idea of “fate” means that Dom is effectively squaring off against a character who believes in free will. “Are you familiar with choice theory?” Cipher asks Dom at one point in the narrative. She repeatedly lingers on the word “choice”, insisting that Dom is making choices to betray is family. Of course, that is a very strange reading of the situation as it is eventually laid out, but The Fast and the Furious 8 seems to genuinely believe that part of what makes Cipher a villain is her rejection of the concept of “fate” and her belief in “choice.”
Indeed, this strange emphasis arguably underscores the strange politics of the film. For a film about a bunch of mercenaries and car racers, The Fast and the Furious 8 seems very invested in lawful authority. In the world of the Fast and Furious franchise, things like surveillance and drones are only problematic when they fall into the wrong hands. The team doesn’t seem too bothered about “Mister Nobody” having access to the all-seeing “God’s Eye”, but only when it falls into the hands of Cipher do they worry.
Then again, it feels like too much to worry about the politics of The Fast and the Furious 8. It is a film that is well aware of its own absurdity, embracing its ridiculousness. There are times when the film buckles under the sheer refusal to adhere to logic or reason, but the engines is just strong enough to power through.