Of course, cynical sorts might suggest that the untimely death of Paul Walker midway through filming of Fast and Furious 7 gave the series a sympathetic second-look from audiences that might have otherwise abandoned it. That though would underplay the strangely appealing alchemy of the franchise in the past several instalments, which has seen it evolve from a gruff drag race B-movie to something far more universal: a turbocharged mix of cars, quips and explosions, with just the merest hint of sentimentality to keep the date-movie crowd sweet.
For The Fate of the Furious – variously referred to as Fast & Furious 8, Fast 8 or, for those really pressed for time, F8 – another bolt-on has been attached to its action-film chassis, that of the high-stakes cyberthriller. It’s an incongruous addition, and one that frequently seems in danger of lurching into techno-jargon incomprehensibility; but things race along at such a ferocious lick you scarcely have time to question the moments of incongruity (chiefly, how can so many supercars be also somehow explosion-retardant).
Standing in Dom’s way in this endeavour are his old racing pals, including Dwayne Johnson’s law-enforcement-officer turned speed-racer, and – in a nice twist – Deckard Shaw, Jason Statham’s big bad from the last outing, now performing the role of acid-tongued antihero. Statham’s inclusion is F8’s smartest move, his snarky one-liners and aptitude for hand-to-hand combat helping to break up the sometimes exhausting in-car sequences. Indeed, there’s one gloriously goofy action sequence, where Shaw battles his way through a plane full of goons, that equals anything from the adrenalised mania of Statham’s Crank films.
Theron too has great fun with the nefarious Cipher, despite the character often seeming drawn-on-the-back-of-a-napkin flimsy. She does an awful lot with very little, purring out extended monologues about choice theory and human nature just like Malcolm Gladwell with access to the nuclear football. And there’s an enormously entertaining cameo from Helen Mirren, channelling her inner Pat Butcher as the gobby mother of Statham’s Shaw.
Of course these brief flourishes of character acting are merely aperitifs to F8’s main course: to batter you into submission with pyrotechnic set pieces. There are three here, of which one – a confusingly edited sequence on the Siberian wastes – falls somewhat flat. Better is an opening sequence in which Diesel races a supercar with a nitrous-oxide-fuelled old banger, which should appeal to anyone who enjoyed the franchise in its early, motor-obsessed iterations. And, in the film’s central set piece, Cipher hacks into seemingly every car in New York City and points them in the direction of a motorcade protecting the Russian defence minister. There’s a convincing thriller to be made about our technophobia around the self-driving-car revolution. Make no mistake, F8 isn’t it; but it’s still an effective – and spectacular – scene.
Ultimately, you suspect that the future of the series rests on its ability to find new ways of making cars bash into each other feel somehow novel. For now it’s managing to do that – and the series’ broadening of its action palette is a sensible way of keeping things fresh. But what kept the franchise afloat during those lean times was its melodrama-soaked character moments and, bar some extended relationship turmoil between Dom and Letty, and a couple of nice nods to the late Walker, they’re relatively thin on the ground. Instead this is a big dumb action movie in its purest, most honorable sense: fast, furious and frequently fun.