'Furious’ franchise ups the ante, again

Vin Diesel in the film "The Fate of the Furious."
Vin Diesel in the film "The Fate of the Furious." TNS

Muscles. Cars. Muscle cars. Flaming muscle cars. A wrecking ball the size of a house. A demolition derby on Fifth Avenue. A nuclear submarine.

“I will admit, there were a lot of toys,” said director F. Gary Gray.

Gray’s toy box – “The Fate of the Furious” — which opens Friday, April 14, is the seventh sequel in a franchise that dates back to 2001 and has become the biggest in the history of Universal Pictures (which dates back to 1912). Each installment has tried to outdo the previous one in terms of fabulous cars and fabulous heists, exhibiting little regard for the critics — “or physics,” Gray conceded. But the results have been precisely the thing that may keep the big screen alive, and drag people out of their living rooms.

“If you’re at home watching a drama with Meryl Streep, that’s cool,” Gray said. “But when you go out to the theater you want to see a wrecking ball slamming into cars. You know what I mean? You want to grab your laptop and watch ‘My Dinner With Andre'? Thumbs up. But if you make it out to an IMAX theater, you better get a wrecking ball and a submarine. And that’s part of the fun of this movie.”

Returning for episode 8 is the usual cast of daredevils — Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Dom (Vin Diesel), Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) and Tej Parker (Ludacris).

Notably absent, of course, is Paul Walker, who played Brian O'Conner in most of the films and who died in 2013, but appeared in “Furious 7” (2015), largely through the use of CGI. (Brian and girlfriend Mia, played by Jordana Brewster, are now “retired.”) One of the things that has marked the franchise, despite its raison d'etre being hot cars, hot bodies and speed, is a feeling of family among the cast. Sure, they’re actors playing an ad hoc family. But Gray says the camaraderie is genuine.

“I’m the new guy on the block,” said Gray, who in 1995 made the cult fave “Friday,” and in 2015 directed “Straight Outta Compton” one of the best-reviewed movies of recent years. He also directed Diesel in “A Man Apart” (2003), Johnson in “Be Cool” (2005), and in 2003 made “The Italian Job,” starring both Statham and a series newcomer, Charlize Theron. “But even though I’ve worked with half the cast already, they’ve been working with each other, in some cases, 15 years-plus. And you can feel the family thing woven throughout the franchise. And you can also feel it off screen.”

In some ways, he said, it helps. “And in some ways you have to direct through it – and what I mean by that is they are so used to being together, sometimes you have to pry them apart.”

In “Fate of the Furious,” they’re certainly pried apart: Dom and Ortiz are on their honeymoon in Cuba when Dom is approached by the villainous Cipher (Theron) with an offer he can’t refuse: Turn on the team or … else. When he and his longtime colleagues are dispatched to retrieve a missing electromagnetic pulse weapon, Dom goes rogue, steals the weapon, and leaves Hobbs to be arrested and sent to prison (where he runs into Deckard, and their uneasy alliance begins).

“You’ve never seen Dom go up against the family like this,” Gray said, “so in some case they’re going against their instincts and that affects the directing style as well.”

Fans of “Fast & Furious” like their interpersonal narratives, but they really like action and “Fate of the Furious” delivers that, including the aforementioned submarine, cars outrunning torpedoes, cars racing across Icelandic ice and an epic set piece in Manhattan. “Our writer, Chris Morgan, had a lot of fun dreaming this stuff up,” Gray said. “And filming in Cuba was next to impossible. They don’t have the infrastructure for a movie this size. Shooting in Iceland, just the math – 40 cars racing 100 mph on melting ice, making sure the ice wasn’t going to collapse underneath it. That all took a lot. Things people would take for granted took a lot. But that’s what makes it a moviegoing experience.”

One day, one of the movie’s tractor trailers fell through the surface “because the ice wasn’t strong enough,” Gray said. “These were things we had to calculate. How do you get a car up to a certain speed driving through Times Square? How do you get a helicopter flying over Havana, given that there hasn’t been an American airship flying over Havana in over 60 years? Even Obama’s plane couldn’t fly over Havana; he had to land in the outskirts.” Creatively, it was a feat, but logistically it was something else, “let alone having some of the biggest stars in the world, coordinating their schedules, having them fly in from all over the world to do what amounts to two minutes on film, was a massive, massive undertaking.”

“It’s crazy, I know, but so much fun,” he said. “And the question is, where do you go after you have cars falling out of airplanes and jumping out of buildings and things like that? Wrecking balls. And submarines.”