Thursday, 20 April 2017

Film Review: It's all about family, family, family in the thin but fun Fast & Furious 8

There's a moment in the final act of Fast & Furious 8 in which two characters are trying to find a way out of a pickle they've found themselves in. One character says maybe they should go into a building and hack their way to success while the other thinks a direct assault on the target is the best way forward. They eventually deem each other's idea too crazy, and too dangerous. A third character then halts any rational thinking and decides that they'll do both. I mean, why not, right?

This scene may as well be a metaphor of the writers room for Fast & Furious 8. Everything in this film is unabashedly crazy and ridiculously dangerous, yet here it all is on screen. Similar to the moment in question, there isn't a lot of thought going on behind the scenes. In fact, I think I'd even go as far as labelling the film "brain dead". Yet, despite the sheer lunacy and idiocy unfolding on the screen, Fast and Furious 8 is nonetheless brimming with energy, loaded with charisma and packed to the teeth with exhilarating stunts and action sequences.

I haven't actually seen any Fast & Furious film preceding this one, but I'm fairly sure my interpretation of the plot holds up. Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is approached by infamous cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into working for her. Unaware of the coercion and questioning Dom's willingness to abandon their "family", Dom's team - including DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), rogue assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) and street racer Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom's wife - work to stop Cipher's plans and pull Dom back to their side.

It's a gimmick, basically. The whole plot hinges on a gimmick. It isn't even a gimmick the film is willing to hold for very long, either. Cipher's winning hand is revealed far too early, sacrificing any tension in her relationship with Dom. Supporting characters are also very quick to fall for Dom's team switch - it damages our faith in their "family" when even his closest allies fail to question whether he's been blackmailed. They just assume he's abandoned them.

Normally I'd be happy to let this slide, but family is an important theme here - in more than one way, too. There's the family dynamic of the main team, the familial hold Cipher has over Dom, even one of the film's late twists falls back on a family relation. "Never give up on family" is plastered over every poster for the film. As a newbie to the franchise, this is the film that I need to establish the familial bond between these people.

Frankly, it doesn't land. I know that seems like an unfair criticism - I am hopping into a franchise in its eighth instalment, good luck to anyone who tries that with Harry Potter - but I can't help but feel a sense of laziness in a film content to rely so heavily on thematic work its predecessors have already done. If you're going to wrap your film around the theme of family, you need to enforce that theme yourself - half-arsing it makes for shoddy framework.

Despite the film's script falling short in terms of thematic layering, it does excel when it loosens itself up a bit and lets its characters have fun. The constant verbal sparring between Hobbs and Shaw is terrific and Johnson and Statham's performances are great here, clearly having fun delivering the line "I will beat your ass like a Cherokee drum". If they have fun, we have fun. The family dynamic may not work, but the team one certainly does.

At the end of the day, though, Fast & Furious is about the action, and film eight delivers. Oh boy does it deliver. After a sloppy and uninspired opening race sequence burdened with lines as ropey as "It's not about what's under the bonnet, it's about who's behind the wheel", the film begins to find its feet. A Manhattan set sequence is brilliant in its bombastic lunacy, cars fly from multi-storey buildings and race through the streets like a flock of drunken party girls - it's utter mayhem, but it's infectious. I lost count how many times I laughed in awe of what I was seeing.

The final set piece, which mostly takes place atop a frozen lake, maybe stretches credibility a bit far - I counted five moments where every protagonist on screen should have died. But is safe, realistic car chases what we want from a film called Fast & Furious? It's over the top and it's unrealistic and it's just plain stupid, but if you can find another film featuring a submarine exploding through ice to assist a pair of tanks chasing down a squad of brightly coloured Lamborghinis while a sniper covers them from a distance and airborne reinforcements fly directly overhead, I'll be glad to hear of it.

In A Sentence
Its thematic intelligence may exceed its grasp, but Fast & Furious 8's infectious charisma and enthusiastically bombastic action sequences make for fun and frequently exhilarating cinematic escapism.

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