I skipped this one at the theater. I honestly thought this would be a jump the shark moment for the franchise, and that it would have been best to shut it down after Fast 7. That was mostly because I considered Paul Walker’s untimely death a turning point that would render the team chemistry null and void. Walker’s Brian O’Connor was the grounding presence, a regular guy amongst a team of cartoon characters and superheroes and his absence couldn’t just be filled by anyone.
It turns out that instead of trying to replace Brian with another ‘normal’ character, the people in charge of making this installment chose another direction, to just go all out with the action movie craziness. What started with a movie that celebrated Los Angeles street racing is now a full fledged A-Team mixed with Mission Impossible kind of affair. We have hackers, federal agents, and shadowy off the books goverment operatives while main man Dom Torretto (Vin Diesel) has gone from street racer and delivery truck robber to a civilian counterpart to crew member Lt. Hobbs (The Rock).
Having done everything from eluding the feds to working for the same feds to avenging fallen comrades, just what was left to do? Well, like the wrestling world The Rock came from it’s time for some good old fashioned double crossing. The story finds Dom getting turned by Cipher (Charlize Theron), an evil dark web computer expert terrorist lady, and screwing his teammates in the middle of a secret mission they were on with Hobbs. Hobbs is disavowed and captured by the authorites, being conveniently thrown in the same jail as Owen Shaw (Jason Statham) the villain from Fast Seven.
From there we get the obligatory prison break and reunion with the rest of the team, and a reluctant face turn from Shaw to counteract Dom’s heel turn. Back with their government handlers from Fast Seven (led by a returning Kurt Russell as Mr. Nobody), the crew now has to stop Cipher while figuring out what happened to Dom and getting him back on the right side. Along the way there are some cameos from a few characters from previous installments, and a few new characters imtroduced. So there are a whole lot of moving parts to keep track of.
Did they succeed? Mostly yes. The best thing they did, in my opinion, was to throw off what last few shreds of realism there were in the series. With Brian gone, and the facsimile of a regular person (even though by Fast Seven he was powering up himself) with him, the producers were left with a choice of replacing him or fully embracing the absurdity. They chose wisely. Ridiculous car stunts cranked up to 11, everyone doing superhuman stuff of some kind or another, bigger explosions….why the hell not? Better to do those things and do them well than continue to fraudulently walk that tightrope any more.
Charlize Theron was the best villain of the series. She was cold and evil through and through, and was a better foil than the others by being such a different character. Every other villain in the series has been some type of muscleheaded tough guy or the boss of one, and the build has always been to some kind of car race crossed with a steel cage match between Dom and said villain. And while those have all been fun and entertaining there’s only so many times you can go to that well.
With Theron as the head baddie and no chance of a fistfight between she and Vin Diesel or the Rock at the end the struggle became more cerebral and psychological, and added a layer of suspense as how things would ultimately be resolved. Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, a ridiculous and unnecessary addition to Fast Seven, was a much better fit here. His recruitment of Dom and company made little sense before but came off a lot better through this new prism of going all in on the crazy. And Jason Statham’s switchover to the good guys came off 100 times better than it should have. Given what transpired in Fast Seven such a turn should have been really hard to swallow but they pulled it off.
Another thing that plagued Fast Seven was Dom’s wife Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) recovery from amnesia. Her death and return that stretched through the last four films needed some kind of explanation but in trying to make it a character building exercise it became silly and tacked on. With her finally all the way back a subplot that hurt things was finally gone. It would have been better to expedite all that as it was another example of trying too hard to keep a toe in the real world.
As far as issues, I had a few. Diesel is looking more and more like Chris Rock’s proverbial old man at the club. While most of the cast is within a few years of 40 or well past it (Diesel and Statham are both 50), everyone else manages to play younger with looking like they’re trying too hard. That may be an acting ability issue, but Tyrese and Ludacris aren’t exactly master thespians either and they don’t fall short in the same way. The other thing is that about two thirds through Cipher yanks the leash she has on Dom in a way that’s too gratuitous and reeks of the women in refrigerators trope from comic book land. It’s the kind of thing that gives Rodriguez’s complaints about the treatment of women in the movie real heft.
Overall Grade: A-
My always changing grade scale changes again. The Fast films have transcended all other films of it’s ilk on the strengths of their castings and embracing what they’re supposed to be about, and now they get judged on how they measure up to each other. I like this one better than Fast Seven and chapters 2 through 4, but I’m not sure where I place it among the top four. I am ready for Fast Nine, though.