'The Fate of the Furious': Film Review

More familiar feeling than expected for the first installment without series star Paul Walker.

Charlize Theron plays a superhacker who turns Vin Diesel against his 'Fast' crew in F. Gary Gray's franchise debut.

After his surprisingly fun remake of The Italian Job in 2003, whose most memorable sequence revolved around a scene-stealing Mini Cooper, F. Gary Gray would seem to have been a no-brainer to direct a Fast and Furious installment — especially once Vin Diesel and his thrill-seeking clan segued from mere street racing to heists and other forms of high-speed mayhem.

But careers make left turns (in this case, a misfiring sequel to Get Shorty), and it took the success of Straight Outta Compton to get Gray in, well, the driver's seat of this eighth installment of the stupendously successful cars-and-guns action franchise. The result isn't as big a gear-shift as some fans expected in the wake of original castmember Paul Walker's death. In fact, it recycles plot-twisting devices from earlier chapters and keeps action firmly in the street-hoods-save-the-world neighborhood entered a couple of years ago. Fate delivers exactly what fans have come to expect, for better and for worse, and it would be a shock to see it disappoint producers at the box office.

After being forced to rejigger the last picture mid-production when Walker died, the filmmakers let him rest in peace here. His character is mentioned only twice: once, in a line that cements his retirement to idyllic family life, and later, in a predictable sentimental touch suggesting he'll always be part of the gang in spirit.

With due respect to the actor, who is clearly missed by his colleagues in real life, it isn't as if the Furious franchise is hurting for dramatis personae: When Dwayne Johnson came aboard in the fifth film, things started to feel crowded. Then came Jason Statham, then Kurt Russell, and now we have a villain played by Gray's Italian Job star Charlize Theron. Somebody get Bruce Willis on the horn, and we'll have ourselves a proper movie for Episode 9.

Is it bloated? Damn straight. And even at well over two hours, Fate can barely find anything worth doing for Russell, a onetime onscreen badass who here functions as a sunglass-wearing expository device. The script actually has him say at one point that he feels obligated to "check in on you from time to time." The words "...so I can earn this easy paycheck," presumably, were left on the cutting-room floor.

Theron, on the other hand, carries plenty of weight in the story; she appears, however, to have little fun doing it. Her supervillain, a genius hacker known as Cipher, sneaks up on Vin Diesel's Dominic Toretto in the middle of his Cuban honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and assures him he is about to go to work for her. Dom scoffs, in that one-note macho way of his, until Cipher hands him a phone whose screen we cannot see. Soon Dom is "going rogue," stealing a very powerful EMP device from his buddies (who have just rescued it from evildoers at the behest of Dwayne Johnson's lawman Luke Hobbs) and delivering it to Cipher. Though scenes between Dom and Cipher give him ample opportunity to register his anger at being forced into her service, when he crosses paths with his old friends, Dom says nothing and keeps his big jaw clenched, appearing to have flipped loyalties overnight.

Yes, Furious scribe Chris Morgan used this device just two movies ago, when Letty returned from the dead as an amnesiac doing the bidding of some other villain, going so far as to shoot Dom before she eventually got her memory back and married the big lug. But let's forgive the self-plagiarism, because pushing Dom to the bad-guy side for a while briefly solves the Furious saga's biggest storytelling difficulty: convincing us there is a universe in which Diesel is more fun to watch than Johnson. Johnson had to sit out most of Furious 7 while his character recuperated from grievous wounds in a hospital; here, he leads Letty and company as they cope with Dom's defection and try to keep him from acquiring even more weapons of mass destruction.

Relieved of this burden, viewers will happily go along with any other baloney churned up in Morgan's thick-witted script. Sure: That EMP can wipe out all the electronics on a fortified military base without disrupting the video display sitting right beside it. Yeah: Dom can somehow arrange a sensitive meeting with a powerful figure while living as Cipher's prisoner. Why not: The driver of a car who needs to communicate with supposed foes in other cars can just shout and have his instructions understood dozens of yards away, over the noise of zillion-horsepower engines and oncoming missiles. (Not to mention the submarine in hot pursuit behind them.)

There are no stunts here to top, or even to approach, the last film's skyscraper-to-skyscraper jumps, and it must be said that some feats — like driving a car up the ramp of an aircraft that hasn't bothered to land first — have come to feel rote. So let's focus on moments of pleasure: chief among them, a long scene in which Hobbs escapes from prison (don't ask) alongside his mortal enemy Deckard Shaw (Statham), the former Hulking out against guards and inmates alike while the latter practices his parkour. Or the few small moments early on when Tyrese Gibson gets to tweak his too-serious castmates with a throwaway quip. "What this series needs is more Tyrese," you might say to yourself during the pic's middle hour or so. But then you see the actor being pulled around a frozen Russian lake, screaming in panic as he clings to the ripped-off door of an orange Lamborghini, and you say, "This was not what I meant by 'more Tyrese.'"

For a long time, it seems that the movie's wittiest moment will be a blink-and-miss-it gag involving a car's rear-view camera warning system. Then, toward the end, comes an extended sequence involving (no spoilers here) extreme violence, a wholly innocent bystander, an unexpectedly considerate brute and ear-protection devices. For a few minutes, Fate of the Furious might be funny even for someone who has never cracked a smile at one of Diesel's self-satisfied line readings. It seems unwise to count on more such moments in future installments. But in a franchise whose increasingly ridiculous action set pieces beg variations on the cliche "jump the shark," a detour into undisguised action comedy might be fruitful.

Production companies: Original Film, One Race Films
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenwriter: Chris Morgan
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel, Michael Fottrell, Chris Morgan
Executive producers: Amanda Lewis, Samantha Vincent
Director of photography: Stephen F. Windon
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editors: Christian Wagner, Paul Rubell
Composer: Brian Tyler
Casting directors: Chris Gray, Jeffrey Karantza, John Papsidera

Rated PG-13, 135 minutes