The Fate of the Furious is a deeply enjoyable ride that reveals some risky turns ahead

The Fast and the Furious is America’s James Bond franchise.

Certainly not through a shared love of spycraft, that’s a later affectation of the Fast & the Furious franchise. And certainly not through similar modes of operations as even at its biggest and most ridiculous, James Bond is practically French art cinema compared to the blaringly loud and over-the-top Fast & Furious. And certainly not through a shared freedom from continuity, the James Bond films keep themselves disconnected while the Fast & Furious films are dependent on continuity in a way that constantly remains a surprise even to fans.

No, it’s because both franchises are fundamentally founded on an ethos. A mode of operation that kind of works with whatever chemicals mix together. A character-relationship-based narrative model with an action style that’s a mix of practical stunts and barely connected with reality insanity.

It also means that ethos is the guiding principle for the franchise, and that unlike many series, no individual film can necessarily kill it. This is true of Bond, and this is true of The Fast & The Furious. The direction matters and should be examined, but at this point, the individual films exist outside the health of the overall franchise. The more mixed reception of The Fate of the Furious has ultimately no effect, there is more to come no matter what we do.

I do this mostly to set up the lens through which I evaluate a Fast and the Furious film. How does it operate within the franchise’s ethos and how does it steer the rest of the franchise forward? There’s an acceptance at this point that we’ll have more, so what does that mean for it all?

Unlike many, I’m honestly rather fond of The Fate of the Furious‘ own individual operation. It pushes this franchise perhaps further from reality than it ever has been before, accepting the more deeply superheroic operations of this universe at this point matters. But it maintains a sense of fun that’s wholly unique to this franchise, a perhaps non-stop thrill ride that adheres to the particular action pleasure of The Fast & The Furious.

But all that comes with pause. Paul Walker’s absence is revealing a hole in the current operation of the franchise, and director F. Gary Gray hasn’t quite found how to fill it. An unsteady hand at the wheel exposes the flaws in this franchise’s latter day approach, and where the flaws in its ethos can be shown.

After the events of Furious 7, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have taken to Cuba for a honeymoon, getting away from it all. A mysterious hacker named Cipher (Charlize Theron) quickly plunges them back in as she turns Dom against his friends and family as he becomes her pawn. The team, led by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and back under the direction of Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new assistant (Scott Eastwood), must battle against Dom while trying to stop whatever nefarious ends Cipher ultimately has.

I’m pleased to report that The Fate of the Furious at least manages to keep and meet the most visceral pleasures of its predecessors. Of course in its action sequences, which continue a sort of insane and exciting escalationism as our heroes beat the living shit out folks in a prison riot, have a Mad Max-esque chase through Siberian ice, and deal with “zombies,” which is something that must be seen to be believed.

But it’s also in the sense of fun and the weird sentimentalism this series applies to the misfits at its core. Dwayne Johnson continues to show why he makes the big bucks for films like this, and the addition of a real-deal foil for him in the return of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), now working for the good guys as a sort of hard-edged variation on his character from Spy. Your mileage absolutely may vary, but Statham’s gifts come in being badass and kind of a goofy physical comedian, so this totally works for me.

At its heart, there’s still a sweetness. The Fate of the Furious takes a particular interest in looking at these relationships by pulling them apart and seeing how they feel about each other. There’s a legit pain in watching any of them turn on each other and the tone of that is well-handled, sweet and caring without ever plunging too far over the edge into treacle.

But speaking of those relationships, let’s talk about the big hole at the center. Brian and Dom (Brian, in particular) was the beating heart at the core of this franchise and his absence is felt. Dom was always most interesting in his relationship with Brian, and without him, the franchise feels lost as to what to do with his character. It gets away with it this time, separating him and examining from that direction, but the clearest thing is that without Brian this series is having an identity crisis that Scott Eastwood sure as shit can’t fill.

I spoke about this an ethos-based franchise, and that ethos is irrespective of who exactly is filling out its roles. But Brian and Dom are that central character relationship at the heart of its ethos and right now, the franchise doesn’t have a replacement. It’s possible that Shaw and Hobbs could be it, but there’s not enough there to believe that one just yet.

It also comes down to that without those core relationships, they’ve gotta have a better villain (this is why the MCU gets away with its bad villains). Charlize Theron is clearly having a ton of fun as Cipher, but the character is fairly bog-standard and one-dimensional as a villain, one of those ill-defined plans that’s more worthy of Die Another Day than anything.

Without any central core, it also means the increasing escalation of the franchise is missing its grounding. There are points where the insanity starts to ring hollow, no character core keeping that big, loud action interesting.

This is compounded by F. Gary Gray being a far less steady action hand than Justin Lin or James Wan. His sense of space and direction in his action scenes is much more amorphous, he doesn’t have the clear-eyed geography that Lin or Wan had, these action scenes feel much more sloppy in their direction, which is problematic for a franchise where these are so foundational.

The point of this is that if we aren’t going to fix the character relationships just yet, there has to be a steadier hand guiding this franchise. I’m sure we’ll have a different director for Fast 9: Dom’s Inferno, all of this needs to be kept in mind.

But flawed and worrying as it may be for The Fast and The Furious as a whole, The Fast of the Furious keeps plenty of its own pleasures, a sort of visceral, never-wipe-a-smile-off-your-face fun that is so unique to this franchise. But knowing that we’ve got more to come, there’s a few big flaws here that start to concern me in a franchise I do have such a deep soft spot for.

Grade: B