Going into The Fate of the Furious, the Fast & Furious franchise is riding high: Each installment has been more profitable than the last — a trend the new movie continued with a record-breaking take of over half a billion dollars globally in its first weekend. And the franchise’s success goes beyond box-office gains: The series has reached new creative peaks with every release since director Justin Lin helped reroute things with 2009’s Fast & Furious. It’s become a bona fide action-blockbuster phenomenon, and expectations were high that the eighth film would continue the series’ upward trajectory.
But The Fate of the Furious is more of a plateau, albeit a reasonably high one. Though it brings in a new director — The Italian Job’s F. Gary Gray, taking the reins from Lin and Furious 7’s James Wan — and some welcome new faces, the film seems more or less content to play in the sandbox established by the past three films: It moves and flips some pieces around, but it’s ultimately most concerned with being a dutiful extension of the franchise that enables its continuation. Fate isn’t quite spinning its wheels, but it’s not exactly charging forward either.
Which isn’t to say Gray has done wrong by the series — far from it. The Fate of the Furious looks, sounds, and acts like a Fast & Furious movie should in 2017, which is to say it’s chock full of reality-defying action set pieces, ham-handed but sincere sentiment, and goofy, self-aware humor that helps sell its over-the-top approach. It also works to subtly shift the Fast & Furious narrative in a new direction that suggests the way forward as the franchise stares down its second decade of existence sans one of its original stars, Paul Walker (who died while Furious 7 was in post-production).
With that evolution in mind, here’s what The Fate of the Furious’s globe-trotting action scenes tell us about the film, and the state of the franchise overall. (Minor spoilers for major action ahead.)
A Havana street race evokes tradition
The Fate of the Furious opens in Havana, where Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on an extended honeymoon. This is the site of what’s becoming a go-to opening salvo to the Fast & Furious films: a high-octane street race set to pumping music and goosed with loving upskirt shots of curvy, scantily clad women.
This time around, Dom is racing for pink slips — and, more importantly, honor — against a sneering local who’s trying to repossess the old, slow junker that belongs to Dom’s cousin. Rather than pit his own souped-up muscle car against the guy’s retro hot rod, Dom opts to race in his cousin’s bucket o’ bolts. We’re helpfully informed that it’s “the slowest car on the island” racing “the fastest car on the island,” because this series has never met a superlative it didn’t love.
This street race is a loving nod to the Fast & Furious franchise’s origins as a gearhead fantasy, and Fate puts a fun spin on the sequence — which evokes the similar “Race Wars” opening from Furious 7 — by situating it within the classic-car-obsessed Havana scene, an idiosyncratic automotive subculture both similar to and wildly different from the LA street racing culture that birthed this series.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the franchise should already know the outcome of this race — which ends in literally explosive fashion — but the Havana sequence also sets Fate’s plot in motion. After basking in his victory with Letty and mulling the possibility of one day having children, Dom encounters a mysterious, seemingly all-knowing figure played by Charlize Theron. She makes him an offer he can’t refuse, one that forces him to betray his beloved team — sorry, his “family.”
A Berlin heist pits Dom against his crew
That betrayal happens in Berlin, as Dom and his team — Letty, Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and post–Furious 7 addition Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) — as well as off-the-books law enforcement dude Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), are absconding with an electromagnetic pulse device that’s been targeted by terrorists. Given Dom’s position as the crew’s steadfast leader, everyone is rightly shocked when he takes out Hobbs’s car and speeds off with the EMP in tow, leaving his teammates for dead (except not really, because all the high-speed quadruple rollovers in the world can’t do more than lightly bruise these guys).
What’s fascinating about the Berlin scene is how it starts: in media res, as Dom and the gang have already procured the EMP and are speeding away from a bevy of explosions with anonymous goons chasing them. We don’t see any of the lead-up, or the mission itself, only the fallout. Given the franchise’s turn toward heist movie dynamics in recent entries — most notably in Fast Five’s series-high vault caper — denying viewers what we can only assume was a totally badass caper is a bold, and telling, move.
The Fate of the Furious is the first of the series filmed after the 2013 death of Paul Walker, who played Dom’s foil-turned-main-bro Brian in five entries. Without Brian in the picture, Dom has become the franchise’s solo figurehead, and Fate functions almost like a redo of his origin story.
The movie quickly explains the reasoning behind Dom going rogue for Theron’s character, who’s revealed to be a superhacker who goes by the alias Cipher. But by placing him in opposition to the rest of his team, not to mention the woman he loves, Fate puts itself in a position to first challenge, and then reassert, the team dynamics that fuel this series.
The Berlin sequence underlines this approach: It isn’t about the team coming together for an incredible caper; it’s about repositioning Dom’s place in the film and, by extension, the franchise as a whole.
A jailbreak establishes a new dynamic duo
Which doesn’t mean the Fast & Furious franchise has left bromance in the dust; it’s simply shifted it to an unexpected — and delightful — new pairing, who reunite in one of the film’s best action set pieces (one that, notably, features zero cars).
After things go bad in Berlin, Hobbs winds up in jail under confusing circumstances that are somewhat clarified by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, smirkingly reprising his Furious 7 role) and his new by-the-book sidekick, soon to be known as Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood). Hobbs forcefully declines the pair’s offer to get him out of jail under a shady deal that would effectively cement his criminal status, and heads to his cell — which just so happens to be positioned directly across from one housing Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the Furious 7 baddie Hobbs helped imprison.
Shaw and Hobbs’s jailhouse meeting is a subtly important one that serves to reposition their characters both as individuals and as a duo. After spending some time growling about kicking each other’s asses — during which Hobbs bicep-curls a concrete bench — a Mr. Nobody–assisted prison riot gives them both the opportunity to escape, Hobbs reluctantly and Shaw enthusiastically. Their unplanned team-up turns out to be the beginning of a beautiful, bulked-out friendship, though neither man would willingly characterize it as such.
The jailbreak sequence is one of Fate’s most kinetic and flat-out fun, but it also speaks to this franchise’s loose relationship with the concepts of “good guys” and “bad guys.” We first encountered Hobbs as an antagonist, a law enforcement officer trying to take down Dom and his crew; now he’s an auxiliary member of the team who regularly bends and breaks the law. Shaw joined the story in Furious 7 as one of that film’s several bad guys, but here he takes up with the betrayed team and Hobbs as they battle Dom and Cipher.
Hobbes and Shaw’s jailbreak underlines a fundamental aspect of the Fast & Furious franchise: There are no good guys or bad guys, only protagonists and antagonists — and any given character can shift from one to the other at any time. (See also: Letty’s time as an amnesia-addled villain in Fast & Furious 6.)
Zombie cars take Manhattan, go boom
But Cipher is the clear antagonist in Fate, and a sequence set on the busy streets of Manhattan helps establish her villain MO, as well as the film’s approach to vehicular mayhem.
As befits an uberhacker of her status, Cipher spends most of the movie tapping away at high-tech computer displays and barking orders at her henchmen (whose ranks include Kristofer Hivju, best known as Game of Thrones’ Tormund Giantsbane). In a memorable sequence, Cipher targets the highly protected motorcade of a Russian defense official carrying nuclear codes, using a ploy befitting a film and franchise that approaches hackers as all-powerful entities: She hijacks hundreds of cars by overriding their safety software, turning them into unmanned kamikaze vehicles that go after the motorcade en masse.
Setting aside the obvious logistical questions (which is a requirement for enjoying any modern Fast & Furious movie), the resulting chaos is hugely fun, and the sight of dozens of cars careening through the streets neatly evokes zombie horde imagery — which Cipher helpfully underlines by growling, “It’s zombie time.” (As usual, Fate jumps at the chance to deploy some goobery dialogue.)
This sequence also underlines how cars have come to function in the Fast & Furious franchise: as weapons rather than modes of transport. But where recent series directors Lin and Wan tended to focus on precision driving and needle-threading stuntwork, Gray leans into the brute force of steel-on-steel impact. The result is a theater-rumbling carcophony that neatly encapsulates the series’ commitment to the brawn-over-brain mentality.
Carpoons fail in the face of pure horsepower
But cars are for more than simple smashy-smashy in Fate — particularly those driven by the main crew and Dom. After Dom nabs the nuclear codes for Cipher, his former teammates give chase, pursuing their former leader’s signature Dodge “Ice” Charger in an array of other modified high-performance vehicles. They manage to corner him with the help of hood-mounted harpoons — henceforth known as “carpoons” — preventing his escape through a sort of automotive draw-and-quarter technique.
But as Dom and fans of this series know, rare is the luxury vehicle that can overpower good old-fashioned Detroit steel, and Dom’s beloved muscle cars are the epitome thereof. In addition to functioning as a vehicular Mexican standoff, Fate’s carpooning sequence reasserts and celebrates the dominance of raw horsepower, which is both kind of quaint in a story centered on a worldwide nuclear threat and completely in line with this series’ view of how cars work.
A submarine attack raises the stakes
About that nuclear threat: Yeah, Cipher is actually going after nukes, for precisely the kind of reason you might expect from a ridiculous hacker villain. As with all of these movies, the nonsensical plot is tertiary to the action scenes and character dynamics, but Cipher’s ultimate plan — which culminates in an extended sequence at a remote Russian submarine base that’s been overtaken by terrorists — speaks to the ongoing escalation that has pushed the franchise in an increasingly unbelievable (and undeniably entertaining) direction.
Remember: This series began as a relatively small-scale character drama with some car chases thrown in. But as the Fast & Furious franchise has evolved to fit with Hollywood’s global-blockbuster model, the threats facing the team have become increasingly James Bond-like in their massive global repercussions. After pitting the crew against a criminal empire in Fast Five, a special ops soldier gone rogue in Fast & Furious 6, and elite cyberterrorists in Furious 7, it’s only natural that the series would graduate to a nuclear threat in Fate.
Enter the nuclear sub, filling the role of “massive object that is somehow no match for a few fast cars,” previously played by a giant bank vault, an airplane, and a Dubai skyscraper in earlier Fast & Furious films. This climactic showdown adds ice to the equation, resulting in an inventive, if occasionally hard to follow, mashup of the series’ go-to car-based action and high-stakes pyrotechnics.
This sequence also establishes once and for all that Dom and, to a lesser extent, the rest of his team have been refashioned as superheroes, capable of facing down and overcoming any threat. The big question now is where the franchise can go after narrowly avoiding nuclear catastrophe. The next logical step on the threat escalation ladder is aliens, which naturally raises the question: Can cars also kick ass in space?
A plane showdown establishes a new standout character
Alas, we’re probably still a few installments away from Space and the Furious, but Fate does spend a fair amount of its time in the air, thanks to the tricked-out stealth airplane Cipher uses as a mobile base of operations. To the film’s detriment, this device separates Theron from the main action for most of the film, stranding her in an impenetrable fortress to poke and yell at high-tech screens.
Until Shaw shows up.
While Dom and the rest of the team are engaged in their Russian ice battle, Shaw sneaks onto Cipher’s plane as part of a side mission, and Statham gets the showpiece action sequence he deserves. After serving as a memorable but ultimately minor villain in Furious 7, he gets to show what he can really do in Fate, and his plane infiltration and subsequent ass kickery solidifies Shaw’s rightful place in the series.
The most notable thing about this sequence isn’t the quality of the hand-to-hand combat or the gunplay, which are both good but not surprising for anyone familiar with Statham’s previous work. No, what’s notable is the humor that weaves through the action, which Statham pulls off with a performance that evokes his hilarious role in Spy.
As with Johnson, who is both a one-liner machine and a bemuscled force of nature in Fate, Statham embodies this franchise’s unique blend of go-for-broke dumb action and winking self-awareness. (The series’ other comedic duo, Roman and Tej, tend to skew more toward straight-up comedic relief, though Fate gives both of them moments of action heroism here and there.) As Dom shifts into the role of family figurehead, the Hobbs-Shaw pairing is poised to become the soul of the franchise as it moves forward.
And move forward it will: Fate is reportedly the first of a new trilogy within the franchise, presumably conceived with this new team dynamic in mind. It’s hard to imagine exactly where Dom and Co. will go from here, but the expansive, expensive, and ultimately enjoyable Fate suggests a clear road map for the series’ future.