Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson. Directed by F. Gary Gray.
It’s about halfway through the opening street race of the eighth instalment in this long-running franchise, that something dawns across the entire cinema: Mad Max: Fury Road really is a high watermark film. Another thought dawns as we approach a prison brawl a half-hour later: The Raid really set the fisty-cuffs action bar high. Once you get to the end of the two-plus hour movie, a third and final thing dawns on you: Furious 7 was better.
There’s really no point in doing a full explanation of the story arcs of the movie series because it’s so long and convoluted that it’d confuse even the most die-hard fans. Needless to say, the series has gone from Point Break with cars, to drag racing movie, to car-centric heist movie to spy movie.
This time around, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is living it up in Cuba with wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), when he is forced to double-cross his team and go rogue along with uber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). The team are forced to work with their former enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) to bring her down, and get to the bottom of just why Dom would turn rogue.
F. Gary Gray, the director of this instalment, hot off the success of Straight Outta Compton, is an inspired choice, having not only worked with four of the main actors before, but all his previous movies have sort of lead to this. He’s directed a film filled with obnoxious jokes that somehow only seem to get funnier with age in the classic Friday, produced a lacklustre follow up to a superior film in 2005’s Be Cool, and had a run at the cars go fast genre with the remake of The Italian Job. To top it off, last year he directed a film about a group of non-whites working for a besuited white man, basically saying fuck the rules, in Straight Outta Compton.
The film is an odd entity. By no means were Jordana Brewster and Paul Walker the backbone of the franchise; people seem to really dislike 2 Fast 2 Furious, one of the weaker instalments and one that hinges on Walker, but without him, there appears to be no beating heart. It comes down to one basic thing, that Vin Diesel doesn’t really have charisma. His shouty scenes are laughable, and his emotional ones don’t hit the way they should. The man is, essentially, a gorilla in a tank top, punching people and looking very, very angry. Luckily, or maybe unluckily, the emotional arc that Dom goes through in this film requires a bit more of an emotional touch and one can’t help but think the emotional arc would actually work better if it was Walker’s O’Conner at the heart of the storyline; as it is, it’s just sort of okay.
Most of the returning main cast are all good here. Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris have mad banter skills and bag some of the films best dialogue, while former Hollyoaks star Nathalie Emmanuel gets sort of a duff deal as hacker Ramsey, who never does any driving, but is good at doing plot exposition.
There are also some great turns from Dwayne Johnson, the buff charisma machine who’s Luke Hobbs is the best character, giving great insult smackdowns with Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw. Both of them are very appealing screen actors with action chops, and following Statham’s scene-stealing role in Spy, it’s clear that he has comic timing. Johnson chews his insults so well it’s hard not to laugh “I will beat your ass like a Cherokee drum”, “I will smack that smirk from your face you tea and crumpet eating summ-bitch.” Scott Eastwood is a little wasted here, though he does get the gag. But really, Kurt Russell’s Mr Nobody and Charlize Theron’s Cipher are highlights, both of them opting for camp, over the top performances, and clearly getting paid for having an absolute blast.
After the work on previous instalments in the series by Justin Lin and James Wan, who both have style in spades, the action here isn’t the greatest. What could have been a stand out non-car scene with Statham and Johnson knocking heads together while escaping prison is enjoyable, but not overly stylish, which could have made it better. The opening race is also a little choppy, and quite oddly edited.
However, the final half hour-forty five minutes is a tour-de-force of manic shouting, rumbling, exploding and punching. How do you top cars jumping out of planes? How do you top a tank ramming through a plane? A submarine launching missiles and throwing ice all over the show. The climax of the film builds on the other action sequences, cutting between car-mayhem on ice with quips and punch ups and the weirdest sort of mid-90s style action-comedy with Statham fighting his way through a villain’s plane while holding a baby.
Apparently there is a ninth film in the works, which is an intriguing prospect, pencilled in for two years time, along with some spin-offs. Really, the two films that would be the most interesting are a Luke Hobbs movie, and a Deckard Shaw movie, but we’ll have to wait and see.
For what this is, which is a meat-headed car smashing film, with beefy blokes and busty babes all of whom have either the maddest of hairstyles or no hair whatsoever, trotting around the globe causing massive amounts of gridlock, warbling about family, and shooting everyone who isn’t a name actor, it’s really bloody good. It comes at you fast, and a little less furious than previous instalments, but it doesn’t dent the series, it doesn’t take the foot off the pedal, and by no means has this long-running saga run out of gas. It could have gone the extra mile in terms of character and story, and it never reaches turbo, but there is a running engine under the hood, and that engine runs on family.
We’ve now officially exhausted all our car puns, here’s hoping you didn’t tyre of them.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.