Editor Chloe Woods reviews F. Gary Gray’s eighth chapter in the Fast & Furious saga.
WARNING: The night is dark and full of spoilers. I’m a little pissed off. Oh, just read the review. Unless you’re trying to avoid spoilers. In which case don’t.
I have a confession to make. I’ve never seen any of the Fast & Furious films before. I knew about three things beforehand: this is the eighth film in the series, there are lots of fast cars, Vin Diesel plays a guy called Dom. Apart from that, I was going in blind. I realise this is not a good place from which to review a Fast & Furious movie in the context of the Fast & Furious franchise, and that I’m probably about to seem highly ill-educated to anyone who’s seen the preceding films. But it may just be an advantage when it comes to judging The Fate of the Furious as a film in its own right.
You see, there’s a reason I haven’t seen any of these movies. Or any Transformers movie, any Underworld movie, or even Independence Day until last year. Film is a victim of severe class and intellectual snobbery. Film buffs are characterised as either Quentin Tarantino fanboys, or so refined they consider Oscars fare lowbrow, but I’ve always found this to be a more severe problem among casual filmgoers. Of course, taste is a matter of personal prerogative; but many’s the person who will look down their nose at action films in general, or who might adore those films with enough cultural cachet – Star Wars, Jurassic Park, the Marvel universe – but would not deign to watch the trashy, commercial action blockbusters which continue to rake in mind-blowing sales figures despite being largely ignored by the chattering classes. Some might simply assume they’re bad films. But more often they’re dismissed with the same quiet sniff and pat on the head as the ‘chick flick’ or the ‘children’s movie’: they might be perfectly good – if that’s all you’re after. Now sit down and leave the proper ‘art’ to the grown-ups.
Unlike the hated Transformers, there seems to be a consensus that the Fast & Furious films are good. You don’t get to eight movies by being bad, particularly if you can’t depend on the sale of Transformers toys – or Captain America outfits – to fund the habit. The FF movies show up at fairly regular intervals, get a nod of approval as well-made, solid films, and soon fade from reviewers’ memory. I get the impression that’s been changing recently; I noticed a fair bit of buzz around this most recent entry, accompanied by acknowledgement of the series’ increase in quality as it’s gone along – with occasional suggestions that this doesn’t mean the films have got better at doing what they do, but that they have developed, deepened, transcended their bad-action-blockbuster roots. Since I haven’t seen the early films, I’m not in a position to comment on that, but the whole discussion intrigued me enough to pick up a ticket. Also, the last few movies I’d reviewed had been heavy on rape, death and all-round depressing-ness; I’d failed to shotgun Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in time, and I wanted to see something fun.
First of all (finally): The Fate of the Furious is bloody good fun. It opens to gorgeous, colourful shots of bustling Havana, set to a thrumming beat and the roar of engines (and a few too many shots of skinny girls in tight shorts, which won’t be repeated but serve to underline one of the film’s main issues, which I’ll get to). Within minutes it’s clear what we’re dealing with: adrenaline junkies, death-trap cars, and impossible driving set in a world of cocky overconfidence. Then Charlize Theron (as Cipher) shows up to set off the plot. The film loses some of its energy after that – it would be near-impossible to retain – but carries its sense of attitude and fun throughout. Theron is wooden and Diesel is bland, but Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson are a delight on-screen – particularly when they get to play off against each other – and Helen Mirren appears to be greatly enjoying herself in a brief but marvellous appearance. The plot, fortunately, is little more than an excuse for personal drama and progressively more ridiculous action scenes. There’s a haka, a baby in a shootout, and an ice race against a nuclear-armed submarine. So far, so big dumb fun. Right?
But The Fate of the Furious is trying to say something important. It’s not subtle. In fact, it beats you over the head with the theme: family is important. Cipher, our primary antagonist, is set up as the straw evolutionary psychologist to tear down Dom’s belief in the importance of love and loyalty. It’s no coincidence that Cipher has no family herself, that her identity as a single individual rather than a group is presented as an important reveal – and even then, she’s not totally self-serving. Though her motives are a little unclear, they trend along the lines of god-complex-driven desire to make the world’s governments behave for everybody’s benefit, rather than sheer greed or power-hunger. It’s almost as if the writers can’t conceive of a character driven by genuine selfishness. (Also, they’re clearly cribbing from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, minus the semi-complex questions about personal responsibility and culpability because Cipher is so firmly presented as flat-out evil. There’s a definite Winter Soldier homage about halfway through.) Family. Is. Important.
It’s not exactly abstract, is it? There’s a nice visual metaphor near the end for the strength and power of family; impressive as it is on-screen, it’s also about as literal as you could make that point. The whole film is fairly literal. It’s playing in a big space but it’s not playing with big ideas; rather it’s grounded in familiar, human concerns. Looking out for your siblings. Deciding whether to make nice with someone you don’t like. Learning to be part of a team. Dealing with a partner’s betrayal, as Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) does – that’s one I’ve rarely seen in film, as I can recall, and more rarely still outside of those art films which drive themselves on being character-driven. But do you know where I have seen it?
On soaps. Infidelity plotlines – along with surprise pregnancies and car crashes – are the bread-and-butter of shows like Coronation Street. The classic British soap is a melodramatic exaggeration of everyday life, while The Fate of the Furious involves a wrecking ball ploughing through a line of cars; obviously, they’re not the same thing. But there are strong similarities in tone, in the way characters are presented – plain-spoken and recognisably human, rather than the finely-carved strangers of many high-class films – and in the way they face their problems. And the viewers, in both cases, are not concerned with existentialism, metaphysics or political theory so much as with watching a version of their lives play out on the screen, projecting themselves onto it, and maybe taking something away from it. To let go of old grudges. To play by others’ rules. The importance of family. Whether these are all good lessons to swallow unreflectingly – well, that’s another question, isn’t it? They are at least well-intentioned, and there’s no reason everybody should care about the personal revelation of faith. Some people just want to live their lives.
But there is one lesson in the film with the potential to be toxic. Unwittingly, maybe, but that’s no excuse. Dom apparently betrays his family and goes to work for Cipher because she has captured his ex-girlfriend, Elena (Elsa Pataky) – and Dom’s previously-unknown infant son. The outcome of this is predictable immediately: the woman will die and the baby will live. And, indeed, the woman dies (without agency or any say over her fate or much of a mention afterwards) and the baby lives. This is not the only time The Fate of the Furious sidelines or minimises women. Letty – funnily enough, the only woman in the film who shows herself capable in combat or even of driving a car – may be adept enough in action scenes, but as Dom’s wife and presumed equal she deserved better than to end smiling over his dead ex’s baby with no sign of conflict. Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) has no more character development than rolling her eyes at the idiots who try to flirt with her – and a final put-down which serves to point out that the audience, too, doesn’t know her last name.
You know what? I’m not even surprised. I’m just exhausted and pissed off that I can say: there are multiple female characters, and they don’t get to do as much as the men, and they don’t get to be as badass as the men, and one of them gets fridged, but they’re there and sometimes they make plot-relevant decisions and this is still better than every James Bond movie ever made. And otherwise, the film is a blast, it’s beautiful, it’s lively, there are lots of cool explosions… Action films don’t need to be complex. They don’t need to be subtle. But it’s one thing to say the movie is allowed to be dumb. That’s not the same as letting the writers off the hook. Because looking out for your family is all well and good, but the natural secondary role of women and their inherent disposability is another thing people will take away from this film. And that’s really a lesson we should stop teaching.
The Fate of the Furious (released as Fast & Furious 8) is out now in UK cinemas. See the trailer below: