Family is everything is the repeated mantra of Fast & Furious. Our eighth entry—the first after Paul Walker’s tragic death—is about the possibility of future generations. The finest moments are when it’s forward-looking. It’s Dwayne Johnson leading a Haka war dance for his daughter’s soccer squad. It’s Jason Statham executing guy after guy on a plane while equipped with a baby in a holder. It’s—spoilers—Vin Diesel naming his newborn son after Walker’s character, Brian. This is the spirit and the heart of the franchise brought to bear upon the viewer.
What it’s gotten away from is finding love in the big dumb moments. Oh, they’re there, increasingly digitized, and removed from the human performances that center that kind of shot. They’ve strayed so far from climactic action that carries a legitimate character concern, it all plays out as empty calorie entertainment. A good example is in New York, when all these cars are taken over with auto-drive technology and sent careening off parking structures, all routed to one spot and causing complete mayhem. But the series has never been about what’s happening to the cars, it’s been about the people inside them, and by overemphasizing these moments, it’s really cut out the heart of why we’re here.
Everyone you love from the series returned, except Walker. This leaves an interesting problem. The same way Lucas Black played Fake Paul Walker back in Tokyo Drift, so too does Scott Eastwood here. It’s creepy casting at best, replacing Walker with lookalikes whenever he’s busy or dead, but that’s what the franchise gets up to.
Some interesting dynamic shifts are made here. Charlize Theron plays the corny-named Cipher, who’s mostly interested in wanton destruction and re-zoning the earth into a technological dark age. Then we have Kurt Russell as the better-named Mr. Nobody, who does fine work briefing the missions and setting up some plotting. They’re both tremendous inclusions in a film that’s chosen to be stagnating anyway, all of its star power be damned. Most interesting, Statham has also joined the squad, and there’s some real fun power dynamics between him and Johnson and how they met in prison that’s bizarrely inspired at least a couple scenes from major blockbusters in the last year.
Fate begins with a wonderfully shot race in Havana and ends with high-impact sequences around a frozen tundra with nuclear submarines, harpoon guns, and all kinds of wild iced out frenetic friction. F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, 2013) does a serviceable job directing but lacks the pure exhilaration for doing the work that came through with Justin Lin and James Wan’s entries. A lot of the big work is done by computers now and that’s good and fine for an opening weekend in theaters, but what are you going to bring home to your television? The answer is a few performances that remind us of family and the great void left by an actor—Walker—who exemplified exactly what that meant.