Like an unstoppable, nitrous oxide-powered ooze, the improbably successful Fast and the Furious series never stops expanding. It sucks up both increasingly hard-to-find ticket revenue and an ever-larger contingent of name actors looking for a franchise berth. At this point in Hollywood’s panicky all-or-nothing stage — where most non-franchise product gets shuffled off the board as soon as possible, to make way for the next behemoth — the movie world looks to be dividing itself into uneasily co-existing alliances.
An argument can be made for the movies’ pleasures, no matter how second- and third-hand they have become. Don’t forget that the initial outing The Fast and the Furious (2001), which took the name but little else from a mostly forgotten 1955 Roger Corman race-car crooks and cops quickie, was a nifty little surprise. The plot was strictly stock — undercover cop Brian (Paul Walker) infiltrates an L.A. street-racing ring led by the bass-voiced Dom (Vin Diesel) that’s also hijacking expensive merchandise off trucks only to discover a surprise bond with his criminal targets. But the movie rippled with an rollicking mix of need-for-speed outlaw racing and dead-serious sentimentality. Its constant invocations of heart and “family” pushed back on the aesthetic of the era’s big demolition-derby extravaganzas like Dominic Sena’s Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) and Swordfish (2001), which as with so many techno-thrillers today, lost their casts amid the vrooming machinery.
Things quickly went to pot after that. Universal, eager for any franchise to start hauling in some dependable revenue in an ever-imploding industry, pushed out three innocuous sequels. They were marked by dramatic shifts in location, going to Florida for 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), Japan for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), and the Dominican Republic for Fast & Furious (2009). But some certainties remained, particularly the ability of Dom and Paul’s ever-larger crew to best their opponents by judicious use of NOS (nitrous oxide booster), Dom’s grave reminders of how everything comes back to “family,” and the tendency of car nerds and short-shorts-wearing car groupies to show up on a moment’s notice for any street race.
The series would likely have died an unmourned death after the tired fourth installment. For Fast Five (2011), however, the producers pulled up stakes and brought in some new blood. They relocated the action to Rio de Janeiro and played it to the hilt with every Brazil cliché possible, from the beaches to the favelas. The movie also introduced a brighter band of brothers and sisters like Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, and most particularly Dwayne Johnson, to amplify the tired-feeling soap opera that had left pallid-looking series stalwarts Diesel and Walker little room left to maneuver.
Introducing Johnson as Luke Hobbs, the most heavily muscled Diplomatic Security Service agent in history, gave the series a couple opportunities. First, it provided another large male to brawl with Dominic. Second, after Hobbs and Dominic’s crew make common cause against a vicious gang, it allowed Dom’s crew to be turned into essentially freelance law-enforcement agents with awesome cars. That development was both a blessing and a curse. It allowed the series to stop retreading variations on the theme of whether Dominic’s crew would be able to remain tight as a family; though the ever-more-tiresome relationship between Paul and Dom’s little sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) continued on in the background. Once Dom and the boys were freed up to freelance for justice and filthy lucre around the world at the behest of the U.S. government, the brakes truly came off.
The one-two punch of Fast & Furious 6 (2013) and Furious 7 introduced world cinema’s other great easily transportable action star, Jason Statham, to the franchise. As Deckard Shaw, Statham plays the kind of ludicrously unkillable mercenary villain who blasts through an entire brigade of law enforcement agents just so he can deliver a message to his comatose brother (long story). He also signals that the series is vaulting from glorified drag-race soap opera into the kind of supercharged summer action franchise whose elastic take on the laws of physics and eager one-upmanship (how about we drop their cars out of planes? With parachutes!) are indistinguishable from those of the DC or Marvel comic-book universe.
By the time The Fate of the Furious opened this spring, the tension between the vestigial series dynamic of Dom’s crew — hobbled by the death of Walker during the filming of Furious 7 — and the larger-than-life adopted characters like Hobbs and Shaw was pulling the movies in diametrically opposed directions. Although Dom spends much of the series with a slight, laid-back half-smile, there is little evidence in Vin Diesel’s catalog of his capacity for self-mockery. In contrast, Johnson and Statham have expertly balanced their action-flick work with a finely calibrated self-awareness (see Johnson’s self-mocking turns in Get Smart and The Other Guys and Statham’s genius inversion of his bulletproof persona in Spy).
So perhaps it’s good news that those two characters might be getting their own spin-off series. After all, it’s hard to see where the Furious movies can go at this point. The opening street race was all well and good, using its Havana setting for maximum color, but couldn’t help but feel perfunctory, as though director F. Gary Gray was just getting it out of the way. The movie that followed cribbed equally from the James Bond canon, what with that absurd set piece involving a nuclear submarine versus hot rods and the introduction of nihilistic supervillain Cipher (Charlize Theron), and the Marvel universe (what is Kurt Russell’s blithe secret agent Mr. Nobody but a knockoff of Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson?).
Given that Universal is currently left out of the comic-book bonanza, and there’s no proof yet that their multi-stage rebooting of their classic monster franchise (The Mummy, and such) will find traction, there’s little likelihood that they’re going to give up on this one until Dom has outrun his last traffic cop.