Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren star in Fast and Furious 8—two actresses, who, between them, hold 4 Oscar nominations and 2 wins. It is a degree of prestige the Fast films have not seen before, so why does it feel like the beginnings of a last wheeze? In this latest entry in the protracted franchise, Theron plays Cipher, a villainous hacker figure who forces Dominic Toretto (the chronically stoic Vin Diesel) into her service against his own merry band of street-racers-turned-criminals-turned-international-mercenaries. Mirren plays the mother of Deckard Shaw—or, as he will more likely be remembered, Jason Statham—the man who killed Han, one of Diesel’s accomplices, in Furious 7, Furious 6, and, retroactively, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. The series sounds like a mess because it is one; until now, though, it has felt rare and lively, something that cannot be said the eighth time around.
This staying power was not always assured. The Fast and the Furious was a cultural oddity from the early 00s, a campy film that came to box office success primarily due to the tuner-car race niche it catered to. Rose-tinted glasses aside, it is a less grippingly ludicrous Point Break, but with cars, the kind of film you’d be forgiven for putting into the same endearing also-ran category as say, Cliffhanger to Die Hard. In the second film, unfortunately titled 2 Fast 2 Furious, half of the film’s charisma left in the form of Vin Diesel starring in his own stillborn James-Bond-meets-extreme sports action film, XXX, leaving his former co-star Paul Walker to do the heavy lifting with newcomer Tyrese Gibson—a questionable decision, to put it lightly. Between the dwindling cast and underwhelming reception of both 2 Fast and Tokyo Drift (which had none of the original cast), Fast and Furious could have been shuttered, and justifiably, long ago.
Besides the underdog nature of these early films, there is already a compelling quality of blithe unpredictability present in Fast and Furious. It clumsily lurches from entry to entry, but does so sincerely, with little regard for tidiness or form. Andrew Hewitt, writing in Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement, describes an essay by Balzac differentiating between le mouvement faux and le mouvement gauche. “The former denotes a body, and its falsehood is referential (it reveals something ‘false’ in the character), whereas the latter is performative and aesthetic, finally; its falsehood is an effect…rather than a cause…The apparently sociological or merely fashionable turn toward le mouvement gauche constitutes, in fact, a rejection of the textual and referential as a means of ‘reading’ the body.” A similar effect is produced by Fast and Furious at this time—it exists on its own terms, not trying to create a complete body (for how can an ever-shifting creation be so contained?) but “resulting from habit” as le mouvement gauche does. The “habit” is the franchise doing whatever it can to stay alive.
Perhaps this is why it was completely acceptable when the hail-Mary fourth and fifth films, Fast and Furious and Fast Five (besides continuing the legacy of confusing naming conventions) revitalized the franchise by transitioning the original cast from me-too crime films to ludicrous heist adventures in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven. The Ocean’s films are a good influence for Dom and crew—light-hearted, quirky, and with a charming cast that allow the audience to forgive any shortcomings or leaps of logic, or (in this case) unbelievable changes to the series. It helps that Daniel Ocean and his repertoire of con men seem to exist in a temporal vacuum, for there will always be another score, and therefore, another film, a way to embody le mouvement gauche in a continuous form while retaining its energy. In Ocean’s, we see a potential path forward for Fast and Furious that plays to its strengths, a focus on a cast the audience has grown attached to if only due to the passage of time. This path was not taken, however, something that did not seem like a problem—until now.
The issue, besides a movement toward a complete form, is repeatability. In Henri Bergson’s early twentieth-century essay, “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” he explains why the sight of someone accidentally falling down is so funny. “A man, running along the street, stumbles and falls; the passers-by burst out laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could they suppose that the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on the ground. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary. Consequently, it is not his sudden change of attitude that raises a laugh, but rather the involuntary element in this change—his clumsiness, in fact.” Fast and Furious is compelling due to its accidental and spontaneous nature, and the way for it to continue being so is to find new ways to fall over, in a sense. Yet with Fast and Furious 6, a tidying up of the events and timeline began, and the film shifted from heist movie to international thriller. Michelle Rodriguez’s character Letty was brought back from the dead, but only so she could be a stable presence for the rest of the franchise; the events of Tokyo Drift and the rest of the canon were connected, and the mess was over. Fast and Furious gained a form in which it could run smoothly for a very long time, and it was not Ocean’s Eleven, but James Bond. Even if this had not occurred, is gathering around the street corner every two years to watch a man “spontaneously” trip and fall not an utter contradiction?
Here lies the reason why the series appears to have been so thoroughly misjudged by critics at large. An odd phenomenon has begun to occur: writers who previously dismissed the Fast films have now, with Furious 7 onward, been all too quick to acquiesce to the general movie-going audience and adorn the latest entries with stamps of mildly tolerant approval, not understanding the difference between the accidental fun and calculated stupidity of the earlier and later films, because on their surface they appear quite similar. The difference lies in a man accidentally tripping, and a man tripping on cue for a paying audience.
And, three films into this new form, it is no longer enough. As divertingly entertaining as Fast and Furious 8 can be, there is a lingering uneasiness with the loss of Paul Walker in 2013. The film has lost its core, and we can see it scrambling even as it keeps on a chipper face. It tries everything; a machismo scene or two between Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham that reads like a wrestling promo (and there is now a rumored spinoff film with the two in development, because that’s just what the world needs, another expanded universe); Tyrese Gibson chewing the scenery with his clowning; Kurt Russel and a protégé played by a straight man Scott Eastwood. Needless to say, pulled in so many different directions, very little of it sticks, but it’s all tied together with spit, duct tape, and “family” repeated ad nauseum. It’s still a mess, but it’s a mess created to ensure Universal Studios’ continued existence—in an age of superhero films and massive, nostalgic franchises, the studio needs its own “too big to fail” mainstay. The good news is that Universal got it. The Fate of the Furious broke records worldwide at the box office, and several projects in the series are rumored in development. The bad news is that the series had to lose its essence to make it happen.
The man trips for a laughing, cheering crowd. Just off-stage, Universal Studios stands with a cane at the ready, muttering, “You better trip, I have three mortgages to pay and Jurassic Park 5 is still years out!”