Everything you need to know about the current state of the Fast and Furious franchise, Hollywood's most improbable success story, can be gleaned from the title of its eighth film: The Fate of the Furious. Almost 16 years old – the original entry, The Fast and the Furious, debuted in the practically Rockwellian America of June, 2001 – the series now purports to carry the burdens that come with age. "Fate," after all, is a loaded word, one weighed down by the promises of responsibility, change and death. "Fate" implies an inescapable final destination, a road map to a future of narrative closure and emotional catharsis.
But "Fate" still rhymes with "eight."
So just as its title implies, The Fate of the Furious offers a soft sell of maturity, with the underlying promise that it hasn't abandoned the goofy antics of its youth (even if producers didn't go with, say, a har-har The F8 of the Furious). If anything, the new film is more attuned to its puerile sensibilities than ever before – and this is a series that once punted a sports car through not one, not two, but three Abu Dhabi skyscrapers as if the act was simply what nature intended.
Which is how we find ourselves, at truly any single point in this new film, faced with one jaw-dropping scenario after another, each defying the laws of physics and logic in a thousand different ways: Hordes of hacked sports cars rain from the sky in midtown Manhattan. Human beings eject themselves out of vehicles hurtling along the frozen ice fields of Siberia at hundreds of miles per hour with barely a scratch to prove their mortality. A man – well, if we can call Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson a mere man – gently guides a missile out of his path, propelling it toward an enemy's fiery doom. Each moment is unbelievable, insane in its concept and execution, but genuinely thrilling all the same.
Somehow, a narrative ties all the above set-pieces together, but discussing the plot of any Fast and Furious movie is a true endeavour, as each story is seemingly built backward – design the bombastic bits first, then reverse-engineer those around a mishmash of clichés, wisecracks, MacGuffins and opportunities for Vin Diesel to attempt a clear enunciation of the word "family," preferably while clad in a tank top and/or sipping his signature Corona (though it seems the gang now prefers Budweiser).
Regardless of the challenge, here's an old college try, though the only school the Furious gang graduated from was one of insanely hard knocks: After the events of Furious 7, which saw the departure of original Fast hero Brian O'Conner (the late Paul Walker), Diesel's Dom Toretto is savouring the good life, honeymooning with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in Cuba and sharing some of the least-sexy postcoital scenes ever committed to film. (Diesel and Rodriguez bring their own distinct charms to the Furiousverse, but their romance is the most unbelievable element in an enterprise committed to implausibility.)
Thankfully, along comes the aptly named villain Cipher (Charlize Theron, oozing evil and sporting a repelling hairstyle to match, but with no real motivation beyond, um, being bad) to add some tension and sex appeal to the proceedings. Suddenly, Dom is coaxed into betraying those he holds most dear – his capital-F Family! – as well as his preference for white clothing (he's one fedora away here from being a literal black hat). From there, it's all a matter of getting from Point A to Point B in the quickest amount of time and with the most vehicular destruction as possible. It's a method of storytelling that ropes in faces familiar (Johnson's delightful government agent/Incredible Hulk stand-in), unexpected (Jason Statham's reformed villain), bewildering (a certain British Oscar-winner gets her hands dirty) and unwelcome (Scott Eastwood's ultra-bland junior G-man, filling in for when Kurt Russell evidently had better places to be).
The mechanics of it all fall apart upon even cursory inspection – these characters started off 16 years ago fencing electronics, and are now tasked with preventing a Third World War – but this is a movie defiantly proud of its senselessness. The Fate of the Furious isn't here to play by cinema's rules, or even the rules of a traditional studio tentpole – it's merely a very shiny, very attractive vessel designed to deliver the thinly drawn but charming characters we've come to care for, and scene after scene of you-can't-be-serious destruction.
This isn't intended as a knock, either. As the Furiousverse has expanded over the years, it's become increasingly self-aware of its crass appeal, its total and complete mania. It is one of the few franchises that's earned more critical acclaim as its sequels multiplied, and that's far from dumb luck. Diesel, his producers and his cannily cast band of ethnically diverse co-stars know that they're playing with some very expensive fire here – and the only way to ensure it won't burn out is to keep pouring on gallons and gallons of fuel. More knockout fights, more comically sized weapons, more magically resurrected characters, more blatant homo-eroticism (Johnson and Statham come this close to making out), more everything and anything. It's stupid, but it's the sort of stupid that comes bearing gifts, if you're smart enough to accept them.
Still – and with any film even pretending to concern itself with the passage of time, there's always a "still" – Diesel and company cannot outrun that nasty bit of destiny that the title promises. For every "hell yes" moment of action-film ecstasy, there's a weary flick at why this might not be so fun in a few years. After two hours' worth of mayhem for the eighth go-'round, the exhaustion lingers a bit longer than before – not a good sign when there are (at least) two more Furious films on the horizon.
Also not helping matters is the absence of directorial mastermind Justin Lin, who left the series after part six, replaced for part seven by the able James Wan and now the merely passable F. Gary Gray. The youthful verve Lin delivered – such smoothly choreographed chase scenes, such perfectly staged moments of hand-to-hand combat – is gone, swapped for Gray's sometimes choppy and sometimes worse aesthetic that barely conceals the fact everyone's been in this game for some time.
If the fate of the Furious series is to grow somehow both wearier and dumber with age, then the eighth film is proof of a mission firmly accomplished. And there's no shame, Vin, in hanging it all up after a job well done.