The “Fast and Furious” franchise has been fueled on a heady mix of gonzo action, macho melodrama and awesome ensembles bursting with charisma and sex appeal. But in its eighth entry, “The Fate of the Furious,” this recipe for exhilarating entertainment is botched, resulting in a wildly uneven adventure, studded with thrills and doldrums.
“Straight Outta Compton” director F. Gary Gray takes the helm of “The Fate of the Furious,” and attempts to rev audiences up with an intro action sequence that boasts a bevy of up-skirt shots and a honeymooning Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel), tearing up Havana’s candy-colored streets in a literally explosive car race. It’s fun and wild, with his rival’s goons pitching a motorcycle in his path, and Dom turning his cousin’s POS ride into a bomb on wheels. But it’s not nearly as out there or impactful as Diesel’s other 2017 action-adventure, “XXX: Return of Xander Cage,” which also boasted an action sequence opening in an exotic location that has Diesel’s hero save the day, then being roundly cheered by the locals. I mean, the latter also had jungle skiing, and little competes with that.
From there, “The Fate of the Furious” quickly introduces Cypher (Charlize Theron), an infamous hacker who’s blackmailing Dom to ditch his family to be her minion in a string of increasingly daring heists. So Dom’s team must face off against him, while still baffled that he ditched them to begin with. While this is a compelling new turn for the franchise to take, it eats away at the heart of this series’ magic, the intoxicating group dynamic of outcasts, smart asses, and Roman (Tyrese Gibson). Without Dom at their center, the group devolves into a tedious scenes of newly married Letty (Michelle Rodriquez) scowling, while Roman and Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) half-heartedly fight for the affections of Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who seems at best bemused by their arrogant showboating.
Separated from his ensemble, Diesel himself is downright dull! Left to grumble threats with no cocky smiles or banter with his crew, he moves through this globe-trekking journey like he’s suffering serious jetlag.
Thankfully, co-stars Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are awake and ready to rumble. The main plot tosses in the threat of nuclear war, yet the most compelling conflict is between Dom’s buddy Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and his recent foe Deckard Shaw (Statham), who are forced to team up because this British baddie has a grudge against Cypher — the enemy of your enemy is your friend, right? As with “Furious Seven,” it’s a blast when their powers collide, most thrillingly in a free-for-all prison break. But even solo, Johnson and Statham shine. Each delivers a scene at once hyper-masculine and yet subversively silly that you’ll be wishing for spinoffs, featuring Johnson as an overeager, haka-chanting soccer dad, and Statham as a fiercely protective babysitter who can pummel a goon with one hand while rocking a baby to calm with the other. These two are the primary reasons to bother with “The Fate of the Furious” at all, as most of the cast seems on cruise control.
Theron brings a smirking allure to Cypher, playing the baddie like an evil queen in a cyber-punk fairytale, all sinister swanning, maniacal monologue, and ghoulish threats. But the script by Chris Morgan cuts this action heroine — who will awe audiences this summer in the intense as hell “Atomic Blonde” — off at the knees, keeping her far from the fray for most of the action. While Dom races through the streets of Manhattan aided by fleets of self-driving cars, or when his team faces off against Cypher’s hijacked submarine in a merciless Russian terrain, this powerful villain is far, far away, left to spit orders and techno-babble in a remote command center instead of mixing it up behind the wheel. And Theron’s not the only talent wasted in the writing.
Helen Mirren bursts onto the scene with a tacky, leopard-print blazer, a crooked look, and a tea cup in a dive bar, thrilling audiences with a new turn in the “Fast and Furious” mythology along with a cheeky yet fierce new criminal. But she’s gone too soon, as is Kristofer Hivju — the red-bearded scene-stealer of “Game of Thrones” — in a thankless role as Cypher’s trigger-happy assistant.
Meanwhile, Scott Eastwood scores scads of screen time as an American agent who’s desperately attempting to bully Dom’s team to his will. Playing the handsome by-the-books lawman, one might suspect the franchise is lining Eastwood up to fill the hole left by Paul Walker’s death, but that’d be a hideous miscalculation, as Eastwood doesn’t gel with the cast, and is so utterly forgettable that I actually wasn’t going to mention him here at all because… I forgot him. I saw this movie last night, and I’d already forgotten he was in it. (Thankfully, double-checking the spelling of names on IMDB reminded me.) That’s how inessential Eastwood is to this movie.
While there are a few fantastic moments to relish in “Fate of the Furious,” it seems Gray doesn’t really get what got people so excited about this franchise. The balance of drama and joy is thrown off with Dom sulking and estranged, the villain out of the main fight, and the team’s dynamic shattered into tired jokes and a pissing contest between Hobbs and Deckard. These movies were once a major highlight on a film critic’s calendar, because they gleefully blended elements of action movies and soap operas with a giddy bravado, and refused to take themselves too seriously. You knew you were in for a mind-blowing blast when you turned out for Justin Lin’s “Fast and Furious” movies (“Tokyo Drift” through “Fast & Furious 6”). But Gray has ditched the giddiness for glowering, offering instead a bumpy ride that’s fun, but not on the level we’ve come to expect from this franchise.
“The Fate of the Furious” opens Friday.