“Fate of the Furious” is the biggest “Fast and the Furious” movie yet. It's also the least fun, a fatal flaw for this absolutely unique franchise.
Somewhere around the fourth or fifth movie in the series, they became something more than goofy B action flicks. It's not entirely clear whether star Vin Diesel was aware of it, but just about everyone else seemed to know how insane the movies were, and writer Chris Morgan began to up the ante even further. “Fast Five,” “Fast and Furious 6” and “Furious 7” were absolutely fun, with stops all over the world and over-the-top action. In the process, the franchise blew up to global phenomenon, beloved by both ironic critics and earnest, popcorn-munching fans.
Tragedy struck with the death of series co-star Paul Walker. He was the glue that kept that franchise together, and much of the press tour promoting “Furious 7” was devoted to talking about his memory. They had to rewrite the ending of that movie to give him a respectful (if awkward) sendoff, but the movie was otherwise ridiculously joyful, with giant car stunts and very small bikinis.
It's in “Fate of the Furious” that seems to carry the weight of Walker's tragic death. They hardly mention his character, Brian, in the movie — there's only one throwaway line, at least until the end, as if it was contractually obligated — and his exit from the series isn't even a plot point. And yet, the movie is darker and more serious than most of its predecessors, with Dom (Diesel) being forced to go evil to preserve what is left of his family.
The whole thing is pretty downbeat, even with all the typical banter between Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and the quips from the team's de facto new leader, Hobbs (The Rock). The main plot finds Dom stealing nukes against his will on behalf of Cipher, an evil anarchist hacker who is retconned into the series. The role is a huge waste of Charlize Theron, the Oscar-winner who the movie should have given every chance to shine. After all, while this series now makes over $1 billion per film, it still has never had a talent like Charlize Theron!
Surprisingly, the movie's best moments come from Deckard (Jason Statham), who swaps sides with Dom and joins the crew against a common enemy. Statham has always been decent at firing quick lines in between punches, but here he's next level, showing a knack for one-liners and physical comedy (especially in the climactic scene, where he co-stars with a baby).
Another delight comes in the form of Helen Mirren, who actively campaigned for a role in the movie. She plays a foul-mouthed criminal, and it's a shame that she doesn't get more screen time. It's almost as if the movie wants to minimize all its most enjoyable aspects and characters. We'd sign up for a Statham-Mirren London underworld spinoff in a minute.
“Fate of the Furious” feels a bit like a series finale, even though it most certainly is not. But there are just so many cameos and bit parts for old characters from previous movies, and it's impressive that they all fit into the plot. Especially because the plot is insane, what with a big finale that involves a freaking submarine in Antarctica.
Remember when this was a movie about street racing and small-time crime? Now it's more like a Bond or Mission: Impossible movie than anything else.
If you're into these movies, you'll still enjoy it. But “Fate of the Furious,” unlike the last few movies in the franchise, doesn't feel like a must-see, and seems unlikely to dominate the cultural conversation in the same way. They've always walked a thin line, aware of their own absurdity, and following the exhausting “dark and gritty” trend of blockbusters has led the franchise down the wrong road.