Retrospective

5 years ago, Fast & Furious went full gonzo — and changed the franchise forever

When you need someone punched, you call Jason Statham.

When Dominic Toretto and his ragtag gang of racing misfits lifted VHS players in 2001, I doubt many audience members thought they’d become one of cinema’s foremost teams of elite secret agents. Global espionage and cyber warfare weren’t quite in the cards back in the days of a Nissan Skyline tune-up. Yet somehow, among the growth of enormous superhero universes, the Fast saga has become a flagship of blockbuster euphoria. With a two-part finale confirmed for our favorite cinematic family, there’s one film in the franchise that encapsulates all the greatness we’ve come to expect so far.

Many fans of the Fast saga would argue Justin Lin’s Fast Five is the apex of the saga, but it's F. Gary Gray’s 2017 entry The Fate of The Furious (aka, Fast 8) that deserves rightful recognition as the franchise’s true champion. Lin paved the way, but Fast 8 is a different beast. Upping the budgetary stakes from Fast Five’s $125 million to a staggering estimate of $270 million, Fate of The Furious is a playground of gasoline-laden madness that still holds up five years after its release.

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Gray establishes his street cred early, opening the film with a fiery race of gonzo fury. It’s a perfect re-orientation with the Fast franchise’s palette of sun-soaked locales, Instagram-worthy parties, and a pulsating dance soundtrack. Dominic Toretto can turn any car into a finely oiled machine. All you need is a Coca-Cola can and a dream.

But as fresh as Gray may make familiar Fast tropes feel, it’s the James Bond-style tale of betrayal and digital brutality that positions Fast 8 as a winner. Turning Toretto into a reluctant villain, at least temporarily, is a masterstroke that allows Vin Diesel to do more than just bathe in the glow of his beloved family. The actor’s brawn and brawler menace is put in the spotlight, enabling Toretto to be seen as a formidable foe should the tables turn permanently. Armed with the technological might of Charlize Theron’s Cipher, Gray’s stakes may not be as emotionally charged as his predecessor, but there is an urgent sense of scale to Fast 8’s undertakings.

“What if Vin Diesel, but evil?” is a surprisingly effective premise.Universal Pictures

That scale is translated into supremely enjoyable feats of high-budget lunacy, whether it’s the New York “Zombie Cars” set piece or the seemingly Die Another Die-inspired finale. Sure, it’s jarring to imagine the once humble mechanic Tej Parker (Ludacris) as a mastermind hacker, but it's all part of the charm. The franchise was already upping the ante in regards to ridiculousness, but Fast 8 could be considered the make-or-break point for long-time fans. Its $1.2 billion earnings surely indicate the former.

There is a secret weapon to Fast 8’s brilliance, though, and audiences have enjoyed his work for years. Forget Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it’s seasoned action star Jason Statham who elevates Fast 8 to an unprecedented level of fun. After appearing briefly in F6 and playing the main villain of F7, Shaw transforms into one of the good guys in F8 (setting up his buddy cop spinoff with Dwayne Johnson in the process).

Statham can always be counted on to elevate even the silliest of action flicks.Universal Pictures

Having served up beatdowns in genre classics like The Transporter and the severely underrated Crank movies, Statham’s presence as Deckard Shaw in the Fast saga is a masterstroke. He is one of the last iconic heroes in an age where the prevalence of “Geezer Teasers” has soured the appeal of action goliaths.

Statham's pitch-perfect delivery and confidence make the character far more than an expendable side character. With a past in martial arts and Olympic diving, Statham’s power as a physical performer yields enthralling results.

It’s no surprise that Fast 8’s greatest sequences both feature the British bruiser. The prison escape fueled by his rivalry with The Rock’s Luke Hobbs is a powerhouse showcase of fist fighting excellence: When the needle drop of Bassnectar’s “Speakerbox” hits, so do the goosebumps. Take that a step further with the wild airplane rescue, which treats us to a cameo inclusion that shows Gray’s appreciation for the wild lore capabilities of the franchise.

Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris are fine foils for each other, but the Fast roster needed an injection of charisma (and martial arts badassery). Fast 8 is the strongest example of what this saga can offer when it balances glorious stupidity and million-dollar action. But it couldn’t be done with only engines pushing the boundaries of physics; there needs to be an anchor for the chaos. Between the biceps of The Rock and the unrivaled swagger of Statham, Gray couldn’t have chosen anyone better to steer the Fast ship into captivating waters.