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The Sound and the “Furious”

The unlikely significance of the latest Fast movie

The Fate of the Furious, the eighth installment of the Fast franchise, is, like so many action movies, merely a musical in macho drag. Thumping ambient techno and hilariously cornball dialogue provide a backdrop for extravagant set-pieces and revving engines—the music of muscle cars. One tightly choreographed fight scene in a maximum-security prison features Jason Statham’s fleet parkour footwork; he traipses like Gene Kelly or Super Mario over a horde of paint-by-numbers thugs who of course flail and fall obligingly out of his path like so many Jets and Sharks. Seeing Statham maneuver through the ruckus is like watching Fred Astaire on steroids—and in an advanced state of ‘roid rage.

True, there are slight variations that prevent the FF franchise from lapsing fully into Vincente Minnelli or Busby Berkeley territory. Instead of musical numbers, we get tears of rhythmic insult-throwing (“Rubber bullets? Big mistake”) and cartoon chases. Statham’s Deckard Shaw and Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) meet in the middle of a freewheeling, free-running melee, and are flanked by a phalanx of Mr. Nobody’s (Kurt Russell) government police. Now that’s entertainment!

The Fate of the Furious, like its seven (er, excuse me, se7en) predecessors, is a crowd-pleasing source of breezy, reliable macho style, like one of those Jersey Shore boardwalk shops that sells Monster Energy-branded beach gear. Fate’s desultory plot centers around the Fast team’s efforts to battle core member Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), who has gone rogue and teamed up with cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). But unbeknownst to the crew, Dom has partnered with Cipher to save his infant son, who’s held hostage by the criminal mastermind and her stooge Connor Rhodes (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju).

In the land of the Fast, it never pays to focus on the details.

Triple-crosses ensue. High-concept car pileups rip up city streets. Cronies gather in front of a gigantic digital touch-screen display, where a global map is outlined in blue lines of code. Computer hackers talk a kind of leetspeak—that is, they imbue every line of dialogue with technical mumbo-jumbo that your mind instantly resists grasping, for eminently sound reasons: In the land of the Fast, it never pays to focus on the details. You will forget them soon enough when the next explosion or crash cascades onscreen.

Still, the various plot switchbacks here gradually build to a fever pitch and before we know quite what’s happened, we’re off with Vin Diesel and company caroming rapidly and loudly from Cuba to Berlin to the Manhattan concrete jungle and the Russian tundra, where the Fast crew does donuts and dunks Lamborghinis into the frozen drink. The crew are kids playing in luxe toys; this is Hot Wheels on Ice. By the time Helen Mirren [!] appears as a cockney crime boss helicopter mom and a bulletproof baby carriage is an accessory to (several) henchman murders, you’re all in. Your f8 is sealed.

As K. Austin Collins of The Ringer has noted, these films are critic-proof, like other big-money franchises offering shameless popcorn fun. Yet this franchise, which had the biggest global opening of any film in history, raking in $532 million last weekend, is not without a message; there’s something under the hood after all. Its 5000-horsepower engine is escapist fun steeped in the power, and elasticity, of action-flick conventions.

Early on in F8, Tej Parker (Ludacris), a mechanic on the Fast team, tells veteran member Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) “Whatever you do, don’t think!” With characters and audience alike duly on notice, the traditional mustering of the scattered Fast crew gets underway. Hobbs is coaching his daughter’s soccer team when a government bureaucrat interrupts him with the film’s basic plot synopsis. He listens to the G-man’s offer, and then cuts him short: he barks something about not needing government bullshit. Again, he’s speaking for us all: the claustral caper-driven world of the Furious is intended, at every level, to be our remedy for government bullshit.

Arrayed against the bullshit world of the public sphere, in true Thatcherite fashion, is the most elemental social unit, the family.

And arrayed against the bullshit world of the public sphere, in true Thatcherite fashion, is the most elemental social unit, the family. Cipher asks rogue car thief Dom what means the most to him. “Family,” he grumbles. She disagrees; her thrill-seeking ethos hinges on the “ten seconds between start and finish when you’re not thinking about anything. No family, no obligations, just you. Being free.” As we go on to learn in a flurry of action-packed confrontations between the Furious clan and various shifty bad political actors and state-sponsored thugs, Cipher’s eventually proven wrong, and the simple family values, like loyalty, steadiness, and fidelity win the day. For all the noise, explosions and gear-grinding, the moral of The Fate of the Furious echoes that of still another Golden Age Hollywood musical: The Wizard of Oz’s calm heartland assurance that “there’s no place like home.”

Since the Fast series launched in 2001, each installment has incrementally broadened the scope of their action, offering exotic international locales for the team to showcase beautiful sports cars and triumph over authority. As the series goes on, the Fast gang is eventually co-opted from a band of anti-establishment daredevils into an auxiliary arm of the state. Producer Neal Moritz bought the Fast and the Furious name from legendary schlock horror legend Roger Corman, who’d first used it for a 1955 B-movie he produced. Since then, the series has stuck close to those origins, bringing a battery of A-game production values (and, increasingly, A-list movie stars) to a B-movie sensibility.

For all of the escapist ambition woven directly into the screenplay, the Fate nevertheless homes in on some key Trump-era anxieties. Hacking and nuclear war loom. As hacktivist Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) explains, Cipher is a “digital act of God . . . manipulating world events from the shadows.” Indeed, she’s so proficient, and so fundamentally bad-ass, that even Anonymous won’t mess with her. Along with the nuclear football, Cipher ultimately possesses a device that produces electromagnetic pulses, which, we’re told, can make any location in the world a war zone. When the time inevitably comes for Cipher to hack into all the computer-enabled cars and let them loose on New York City streets, she announces “It’s zombie time”—neatly tying in the greatest popcult apocalyptic franchise now going with real-world worries about the coming reign of self-driving cars.

Meanwhile, there’s no reason to think that the Furious franchise will halt its own zombie-like march through the American (and increasingly global) attention span. “You were only supposed to create a diversion, Roman!” someone says early in the movie, when the posse is rip-roaring through some urban roadway. With an American manufacturing workforce growing impatient for the economic deliverance that our own entertainment-branded president has pledged to engineer on their behalf—and with globalized GM production facilities now occupied by Venezuelan protestors—the diversions will indeed have to come fast and furious.