No one watches The Fast and the Furious movies for grumbly, mumbly, sometimes shouty strong man, Dominic Toretto. Well, I guess some people must, but as the series continues and the crew grows and the scope of its heists and missions along with it, Dom Toretto, king of the street racers and, lately, international super-something, has become less of Fast and the Furious’ core and more of an initiating incident motion. He is a formidable body around which increasingly absurd (but wonderful) plots are built, but not a touchstone for other characters. Vin Diesel may be the guiding force on the series’ production team and beloved by fans for his frequently silly social media presence, but he is far from the main or only draw of these films, and The Fate of the Furious, which removes Dom from his family for much of its running time, underlines how distant he’s become from them, and how important other characters are.
While the series starts out as an ensemble led by a duo (a format it maintains for the following six films), its latest outing, The Fate of the Furious, has Dom Toretto standing alone. I mean this both in terms of emotional and physical distance. F8‘s conceit is that Dom has “gone rogue,” as Hobbs puts it, and allied with the film’s new villain Cipher. But it’s also due to Dom being without a brother, a male counterpart who understands and complements him. Letty, his wife, has always filled a somewhat different role. Although she plays a more active role than Dom’s sister, Mia, Letty rarely plans or initiates missions and never brings friends of her own into the family. She is as firmly tied to Dom as Mia is to Brian. In Furious 7 she says, “Where you go, I go, when you die, I die,” and this is Dom’s motivation to come back to life (even after CPR has failed). Similarly, when Brian “retires” at the end of the film, Mia goes with him. Letty is Dom’s personal support system and not positioned as a potential co-leader of the team.In
In F8, something is missing from the team and from Dom. That something is someone who ties and binds him to his broader family; his crew has been broken. This new distance is due to the tragic death of series co-lead, Paul Walker, who played perpetually conflicted thrill seeker, Brian O’Conner. F8 tries to breeze over this absence with a new villain, more screen time for Diesel, and no less than three potential replacement white men, but the loss of longtime a series co-lead is difficult for any franchise to get past, and in the case of the Fast films, so much concerned with found families, the head of one-half of this ragtag band “retiring” has left things unsettled and some of those family ties frayed.
MIA in two of the films (save for the briefest cameo in Toyko Drift and, I think, a photo in 2 Fast 2 Furious, 2 Puppy Boys On the Beach), but more often a huge presence as the unfazed, untouchable leader of the pack, Dominic Toretto is the head of the family. He is the one around which all other characters orbit. In The Fast and the Furious, the series’ debut, Mia Toretto tells Brian that her brother Dom is like gravity. He is the undeniable centre of his team and his family, and that sense of untouchability lends him a kind of pull. Brian too, finds himself drawn in by Dom. Their growing friendship causes Brian to doubt his role as an undercover cop, and the consequences of that set in motion everything that follows. It’s their relationship, at first something less than friends, separated as they are by the law, later something closer than ordinary brothers, that removes Dom et al from Echo Park, L.A. and sends them first to Mexico and Brazil, and then all over the world.
It’s their relationship which fuels Brian’s seesawing personal conflict between being an outlaw and a man of the law, between his sense of justice, his suffocating desire to belong and be loved, and his need for speed. It’s also their relationship which facilitates the series’ pivot from increasingly wild, car-based capers to Diverse Crimey James Bond In Cars. When Dom, Mia, and Brian (and also Vince, but really, no one cares about Vince) find themselves overwhelmed by the threat of angry Brazilian drug lord, Reyes, and angrier U.S. federal agent Luke Hobbs, they assemble a team for a heist. That team, composed of characters from the previous films, includes close friends of both Dom and Brian (none of Letty’s because she is “dead” at this point, but none of Mia’s either). Dom doesn’t initially get along with Brian’s childhood friend Rome, but he does trust that he’s there for a reason. He more quickly accepts the inclusion of hacker, mechanic, engineer, and all around handyman Tej. Brian just as quickly appreciates the talents of Dom’s Dominican crew, Han, Leo, and Santos. Giselle, who they both met during the previous film’s Mexican misadventure, is quickly accepted by all, especially Han. By the end of the film, the crew is solidified and bonds of trust have begun to grow between them all, but bonds of friendship are slower to grow, particularly when it comes to Dom.
As the generally unquestioned leader of the crew, Dom’s judgment is final, and his approval is sought after. But outside of his core family (Letty, Mia, and Brian), he isn’t particularly close with the other members of the crew. Much of his relationship with Han, his closest friend outside of the core family group, takes place off screen or in the briefest of conversations. The relationship between them is implied, but never fully explore onscreen. We get even less when it comes to the rest of the crew. He may be “gravity,” but he keeps everyone at a safe orbit. By Furious 7, he has a good relationship with each member of the crew, but not a deep one. The narrative never takes time for Dom to learn more about Rome or Tej, never mind new and more peripheral member Ramsey. There a short scene of Dom mourning Han, which provides NOS to the film’s plot, but still so little of their friendship. There are no scenes of Dom giving Rome or Ramsey a pep talk or helping Leo and Santos out with some kind of personal jam. There is just so little of Dom simply connecting with his crew. It being Paul Walker’s last film, and one that they had to substantially recut in order to adjust for his death, Furious 7 is naturally much more interested in exploring Brian’s significance to this large crew turned family. This doesn’t leave much room for Dom to bond with others, I guess, but F8 displays the same reluctance to explore his ties with the rest of the crew and, in turn, their ties to him, but unlike Furious 7, there is no concrete reason for this distance.
Rather than take the time to adjust for Brian’s absence or explore the changed team dynamics, F8 has Dom “betray” the crew, switching sides to join new villain Cipher. In his absence, Luke Hobbs becomes the de facto head of the team, but instead of setting him up to be Dom’s new counterpart–not quite Brian’s replacement but filling a similar role in the team–it has him spend much of the film getting to know Deckard Shaw, his nemesis from Furious 7. Their new uneasy friendship has much the same flavour as Dom and Brian’s when they reencounter each other in the fourth film, Fast & Furious. (They even work on a car together.) It’s Hobbs and Shaw, now, who carry the thematic conflict between authority and adventure and who seem to be on the road to friendship or even brotherhood. Shaw murdering Han during a post-credits epilogue to Fast & Furious 6, does not seem to be much of a barrier to this new relationship; a few glares and grumbles is all the reaction that merits with the team. Rome and Tej, meanwhile, whose friendship has slowly grown on screen since their first appearance together in 2 Fast 2 Furious, rarely the carry the weight of it. Their scenes together are played for laughs, not pathos, and even the cliche introduction of a rivalry over hacker Ramsey’s affections doesn’t truly seem significant. This is a friendship that is taken for granted, never afforded real attention or examination.
I said that F8 doesn’t really deal with the absence of Brian, and that’s true, but the film does notice it and try to fill it with some other similar white men. It offers up Deckard Shaw, Clint Eastwood’s kid, and then Owen Shaw as piecemeal replacements for Brian. Deckard and Owen have that complicated history with the crew, the skills of a government operative, and particularly, expertise in close quarters fighting. It’s Brian who provided the majority of the franchise’s best fight scenes, both Dom and Hobbs better suited to feats of strength and Letty often relegated to one good fight scene per film. Clint Eastwood’s kid, who plays Mr. Nobody’s (Kurt Russell) shadowy government apprentice, is both straight man and fresh-face-(not)-kid. He makes the kind of amateur mistakes that the Brian of the first film did, and he spends much of the film learning the value of the crew’s unique problem-solving methods. Like Brian, he needs to learn how to let go of the rules. Unlike Brian, he’s a charming literal Nobody. But yet, it’s clear why the film saddles the crew with him and why it tries to rehabilitate Deckard Shaw by leaning on the love he has for his own family and hinting at an unjust fall from grace. Both of them are here to fill the gap that Brian has left. By the time Owen shows up, in the flesh, I couldn’t help but think they were getting desperate. Owen has an infinitesimal role in the film, but his presence is, well, more of the same. His inclusion helps Dom, Luke, and the others to see Deckard as a person with similar values, to make him potentially a future member of the crew.
But while these Brian Juniors try to fill the skills gaps, and two sets of men, Rome and Tej, and Hobbs and Shaw, carry the banner of brotherhood, none of these helps the film find a new balance. There is still Dom, that old centre of gravity, largely on his own. For him, there is no new brother and no new ties to his crew. Instead, F8 chooses to emphasize a new relationship and a new role for Dom: actual daddy to the actual Brian Junior, the surprise child whose kidnapping by Cipher was the motivation behind his short-lived “betrayal” of the team. Brian Junior’s mother, Elena the Brazilian cop who briefly lived with Dom while Letty was “dead,” is quickly dispatched, leaving Dom with a new, uncomplicated family unit adjacent to his misfit crew. With this emphasis on children, on biological or nuclear family, The Fast and the Furious gives the (perhaps unintentional) impression that however big your crew, no matter how great your crime family, it’s your biological family that matters most.
In choosing to have Dom throw over the crew in order to save his new son, to work with the Shaw rather than his crew or super spy Mr. Nobody, The Fast and the Furious series is able to do the one story it hasn’t been able to tell before, a member of the family not just leaving but going rogue. It’s a fake-out, of course, but one that has thematic and emotional consequences for the series. We did finally get to see what Dom would be like working alone–apparently an actual superhuman–but was it good? You already know that I don’t watch The Fast and the Furious for Dom, but even for those few Dom fans out there, it’s hard to deny how much more fun the film was when Hobbs or Rome or Tej took the lead. And it’s hard to deny that the crew seemed to get along just fine without Dom.
F8 ends with Dom and Letty settling in New York with their new son Brian Toretto. It seems unlikely that they will retire like the other Toretto-O’Conner parents, Brian and Mia. Given the overwhelming emphasis that the film places on Dom as a man apart, and how much it seems convinced we’re invested in the gruff love story of Dom and Letty, I can’t see them leaving anytime soon. There is, of course, with a cookout where all of the clan (and mysteriously the Nobodies, Big and Little) gathers to cement ties over food and listen to Dom give a speech. Several of the films end this way, a callback to meals shared with Dom’s first crew. Here he is, ten years later, still the centre of gravity, still at the head of the table, the generous pater familia. But like I said at the start, the series has moved past Dominic Toretto. For however much the film tries to keep him at the centre of the plot, he is not its emotional core. F8 is somewhat remarkable for a Fast film in not really having an emotional center; it seems to have lost sight of it in all the chaos of flying cars, location changes, and setting up a series of excuses for Dom to scream scream scream. The film’s emotional sleight of hand though is amateur at best. F8 is certainly a fun film, but it’s also an incredibly hollow one. Every cut to Dom’s torment as that man so apart and so lonely expends what joy the film finds in Rome and Tej, Hobbs and Shaw, or Brian Jr. (My god! That kid!)
Perhaps Dom still is gravity, in his own way the centre of the film, a very serious, very explodey black hole, though, far from the compelling draw of a star.