Warning: SPOILERS for The Fate of the Furious ahead
At this point, the inexplicably massive Fast and Furious franchise could simply stick itself in cruise control and count the box office billions. Evolving from a simple Point Break rip-off, the series has slowly morphed into a bonkers biennial event that offers up massive gasoline and testosterone fuelled action so self-aware it’s nigh-on impossible to hate.
But for the eighth installment, The Fate of the Furious, Universal switched things up. Instead of having Dominic Toretto’s assembled family of rogue drivers once again taking down an even more nefarious criminal, this time Vin Diesel’s gravel-voiced mechanic turned on his kin. Dom’s gone bad was the crux of the movie’s marketing, sparking endless speculation (including the possibility he was in fact a Terminator)
Now the movie’s here, we have an answer. It turns out that Dom had an unknown child with Elena Neves (his love interest introduced in Fast 5 when Letty was presumed dead) who Charlize Theron’s Cipher has kidnapped. Dom had unwittingly been working against Cipher’s goons for the past two movies (despite having finally caught up with the events of Tokyo Drift, the Fast and Furious timeline is still a mighty muddle), so she’d decided to simply turn her enemy. Of course, things fall apart when Dom schemes with the Shaws to save his son and metaphorical family, returning to the series status quo with a young Brian Toretto.
Now that’s a fair enough explanation (and one that wasn’t easily guessable), but is sadly undone by its execution. The Fate of the Furious is at its best when it’s diving deep into the team’s friendly banter or enacting unbelievable stunts and impressively choreographed action – everything that's apart from Dom’s arc. Where it stumbles and loses sight of its own clearly defined rules is in Diesel’s attempt to add weight. Here’s why The Fate of the Furious didn’t need Dom going bad.
It’s A Marketing Ploy First and Foremost
The mystery of why Dom went bad was a major topic of discussion in the lead-up to the film’s release, but if you take the movie by itself it’s a strangely handled arc. We have Dom’s honeymoon interrupted by Cipher, leading to him swiftly betraying his team at the next possible opportunity. Then, just as we’re beginning to come to terms with the possibility of betrayal (following a kissing interlude), the film rushes its explanation out as fast as possible.
For the rest of the runtime, we fully understand Dom and his true, deep feelings. As he’s the overall franchise protagonist that makes some sense, but when the question of his loyalty is the main story force and the last act twist requires some tension over his fate it’s a strange narrative decision. Due to poor pacing, there’s no point where the turn goes beyond intrigue. Instead, the film uses audience knowledge of the twist from the trailers as emotional backing for the in-movie development, and leans into this so much that the “Dom is bad” set pieces feel silly in context.
Take the kiss. When Dom helps Cipher break into Mr. Nobody's government facility, she attempts to solidify Dom’s betrayal to his team by making out with him in front of wife Letty. In the trailers that’s a perfect final shot, highlighting just how dark Dom will go. In the movie, however, it’s entirely out of character even with the gun pointed to Toretto Jr.’s head; the next scene has Cipher and Dom debating it in a flagrant attempt to justify its outlandishness by layering on ambiguity. It’s a trailer moment that splutters the film – no wonder it’s become a key topic of debate among the stars involved. Although that there’s been a spat highlights another issue.
It’s Beyond Vin Diesel’s Abilities
It’d be unfair to criticize Vin Diesel as a movie star. He’s been essential in growing Fast and Furious (currently the ninth biggest franchise of all time, but with based on Fate's tracking could soon jump up to as high as sixth) and despite only mild enthusiasm has kept xXx and Riddick chugging along. The actor's also got a clear love of any project he lends his name too; on top of recording thousands of “I am Groot” for Guardians of the Galaxy, he did six foreign language dubs too (a number that's almost trebled for the sequel).
However, what Vin Diesel isn’t is a great actor. He’s delivered some good performances in his time, sure – The Iron Giant and Saving Private Ryan still stand tall – but overall his range is incredibly limited. If you need someone to play a gruff, muscled fighter with a deep-seated heart-of-gold, then – yeah – maybe give Diesel a call. Otherwise, get literally anyone else.
Dom Toretto has worked so far because he’s been locked into that heavily restrictive type with little venturing further afield. The most emotional arc for the character was the death and return of girlfriend Letty, something that played out behind a macho exterior. The departure of Brian after the death of Paul Walker likewise played on the previous camaraderie rather than a true outpouring of feelings. But what we get in Fate is different; a child is something more primal and gets under Dom’s skin, bringing out a tangible emotional response. Toretto’s personality shifts and at points he breaks out in tears.
And Diesel just can’t make this resonate. He certainly tries, yet in the multiple extended scenes on Cipher’s plane where he has to confront his trapped son it never quite coalesces. The actor is much better when having to play turned Dom out in the world – a man on a mission – but in these key story beats can’t hack it. He’s further hampered by the movie’s commitment to the twist being so lax, setting an even higher bar he just can’t reach; the emotion just has to be on screen.
It’s well documented that the way the actor-producer views the series is almost at odds with what it actually is (something that may have played into his real-life conflict with The Rock), and this boosted dramatic role may come from that. Indeed, he recently became a father, which seems to have dominated the core decision making process in the film (Dom naming his son Brian is even a parallel to Vin naming his daughter Pauline).
Too Much Family
If there’s one word that succinctly embodies the Fast and Furious movies, it’s family. The word is dropped dozens of times in each film, ostensibly emblematic of how the team of fast drivers Dominic Toretto has assembled over eight adventures are more than just work friends. Of course, Brian O’Connor wound up married to Dom’s sister and he and Letty have finally tied the knot, but every time he's grumbled the F-word it meant something more than even that; the films are at their core showing the depths of bromance.
The Fate of the Furious manages to somehow make the screams of “FAMILY” more extreme. We open with Dom and Letty honeymooning in Cuba where he helps out his cousin, while Hobbs is introduced coaching his daughter’s soccer team, then the secret son twist introduces a complicated sense of innate affection. To add to the mix, the way Dom gets out of his jam is by calling upon Helen Mirren’s cockney gangster to get her sons, former antagonists Luke and Owen Shaw, to save his child and incapacitate Cipher’s plan. Counting the core group love then that’s six variations on the meaning of family; Fate is quite simply the familiest film in the franchise.
And yet it never really takes advantage of that. It throws in so many tongue-in-cheek family moments, yet F. Gary Gray doesn’t try to draw them together into a bigger point. Surely having this many threads should be used to analyze on the series' unifying theme? It's still a mindless action movie on a basic level so it needn't be anything too intense, but Fate isn't even remotely interested in the word beyond its grumblings. Instead of making a statement on the different, powerful relationships in a single person’s life, all it seems to be saying is that you should clearly divide your social circles.
Evil Dom was never going to be something as deliriously fun as a Terminator or a franchise-jumping Xander Cage, and what The Fate of the Furious' provided is probably the best direction the team could have gone in. However, that doesn’t excuse how bizarrely it's handled. This whole arc is the weakest part of the film, with strange narrative execution and subpar acting leading to it not landing in the intended manner. Given that the rest of the film is otherwise incredibly strong and - despite (or perhaps because) it goes from a Cuban street race to stopping World War III in the space of two hours - tonally on point, it's almost like they should have gone with a simpler, more streamlined plot.
- The Fate of the Furious (2017) release date: Apr 14, 2017