The Fast and the Furious franchise is nothing if not adaptive. Beginning life in 2001 as a souped-up B-movie set in the subculture of LA’s underground street racers, it morphed into an explosive heist movie for the fifth instalment and, come 2015’s seventh outing, the action-packed crime series was now ransacking superhero territory with its skydiving cars, leaps between skyscrapers and Vin Diesel and Jason Statham smacking seven bells out of each other with gigantic wrenches as concrete collapsed all about.
But how do you adapt to the loss of Paul Walker? Playing fan favourite Brian O’Conner in all but third instalment Tokyo Drift, the hugely likeable star died, off set, in a single-vehicle collision in November 2013.
As all who contributed to Furious 7’s $1.5bn box office will know, that film made it to the finish line by drafting in Walker’s brothers, Cody and Caleb, for a few final shots, and by re-writing the script to award O’Conner a fond farewell. Trouble being, so elegantly and sincerely did it deal with Walker’s passing, it felt like a natural endpoint to a franchise that had long made ‘family’ its key theme.
Well, The Fate of the Furious (or Fast and Furious 8 as it's titled in the UK) doesn’t so much adapt as erupt, doing the unthinkable by turning Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), a man so dependably loyal he makes guide dogs look callous, against the very family he extols with such frequency it should be a drinking game (and probably is).
The architect of his volte-face is cyber terrorist Cipher (a hypnotically steely Charlize Theron – cue Fast and Furiosa gags), who persuades Dom to nab first an electromagnetic pulse gizmo in Berlin, and then some nuclear launch codes in New York – both strategic steps en route to an explosive endgame that takes place in the frozen wastelands of Russia (but was filmed in Iceland).
Just what Cipher has on Dom shall not be revealed here, but safe to say her Machiavellian machinations link back to previous Fast and Furious movies, with old names and faces coming into play. What can be said is that the Dom-vs-Family set-pieces are gargantuan, with new-to-the-franchise director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) proving he really can handle car carnage after his backfiring remake of The Italian Job. Keeping his camera close to the flying fists and colliding cars (no conspicuous CGI here, thank you very much), he seeks maximum impact while repeating the series’ knack of each time supersizing the action.
A wrecking ball plays skittles with a fleet of speeding vehicles. Hundred of prisoners and guards do their best impression of in a riotous prison-break sequence that sees Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs bounce rubber bullets off his pecs. Hundreds of cars are hacked in Manhattan and remote-controlled to charge down a motorcade, even raining off the rooftop of a multi-storey car park.
All, however, are small-fry compared to the kamikaze finale involving muscle cars, tanks, snowmobiles, jets and the submarine spotted in the trailer. Hell, if there was ever any doubt that Dom, Hobbs, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tey (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, the Big Bad last time out but now forced by Kurt Russell’s government spook Mr. Nobody to aid the good guys) are the Avengers with power cars instead of superpowers, the proof here smacks us full in the face. “Man up and save the entire goddamn world,” growls Hobbs – yes, the stakes really are that high, the tone that ludicrous.
Truth be told, what’s missing here is Walker’s Zen calm and sea-blue eyes to bring a breath of fresh air to all this hyperventilation. Although just when it seems he’s been too readily forgotten by the Fast and Furious family, a lovely grace note honours his memory.
Anyone requiring even a shred of authenticity or gravitas, meanwhile, will have to make do with the faint real-world chimes sounded by a plot that involves hacking, Russia and the shadow of World War 3; add it to the ethnically diverse cast that has always been the franchise’s engine and you might even argue it’s a blockbuster for the Trump era.
But that’s stretching it. Better to buckle up and enjoy the ride for what it is: an OMG, OTT, WTF action movie that ricochets fast and furiously with banter and put-downs. “I’m gonna knock your teeth so far down your throat you’ll have to shove a toothbrush up your ass to brush 'em,” spits Hobbs. At least they’ll be fixed in a grin.