Two strong, accomplished, award-winning actresses join the testosterone and protein-shake fuelled cast of the eighth chapter in the wheels and wisecracks franchise. Charlize Theron, partially reinvented as a mean action heroine with Mad Max: Fury Road, plays Cipher, a cool blonde (with painfully long dreads) whose vehicle of choice is a retrofitted, high tech aircraft. A ruthless cyber criminal, Cipher confronts Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) in Cuba and convinces him to turn on his “family” and go “rogue”. It doesn’t take long —about 30 seconds before Toretto to turn his back on his wife Letty and his crew Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). It’s a big deal for a man who holds family above all else.
A few hundred miles away, Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) is being recruited into an off-the-books mission even though he’d much rather be coaching his daughter’s football team. When the job goes wrong, he’s incarcerated in a cellblock facing arch-enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). A carefully managed stunt by US government agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) results in a breakout from the jail and a teaming up of Hobbs, Deckard and Toretto’s abandoned team. Deckard though needs a little more persuasion, seen in the form of Helen Mirren as his gangster mother. Mirren is delightful in her brief role which makes one wish for an origin movie.
But back to Toretto and his problems. Any fan of the franchise knows that there isn’t much he can’t fix if he has a souped-up fast car. This makes him a formidable adversary for Roman, Tej, Letty, Hobbs and Ramsey. And with the backing of the merciless Cipher, New York and Siberia become graveyards for vehicles and bodies.
Director F. Gary Gray ensures that the pace remains breathless. There are some stunningly designed action scenes, including one with numerous computer hacked self-driven cars speeding through Manhattan resulting in a mega pile-up. Cipher calls it a zombie attack and it is the coolest set piece in the film, followed by another smartly designed scene where Dom’s car is harpooned by his former teammates.
Considering the budget of the film (approximately a staggering $250 million), a larger proportion could have been allocated to the special effects. The shoddiness in VFX is exposed in the climax set in the ice fields of Siberia where submarines, tanks, cars recklessly drive on (or under) thin ice.
Toretto et al have clearly outgrown street racing. Unlike the earlier films, there is only one drag race through the streets of Havana, which is—naturally—won by Mr Fast and Furious Dom Toretto. The banter between competing colleagues Roman and Tej for Ramsey’s attention is amusing. Plus they find a whipping horse in rookie Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood). While Emmanuel has very little to contribute, Diesel glowers and Rodriguez flounders when required to emote. It’s down to Theron, Russell and Mirren to add acting heft.
Plot has never been the strong suit of this franchise and once more it’s unclear what Cipher’s motivations really are. Rumour has it that this is the first in the finale trilogy. Designed to appeal to their enormous fan base, the makers clearly have every intention of going out at full throttle.