There was a bittersweet alchemy at play that made 2015's "Furious Seven
" the series-best entry, a combination which included a stylish auteur director in James Wan, a breakneck pace that gave its legitimately exciting action sequences extra power, and a special drive from all involved to pay reverent tribute to actor Paul Walker, who tragically passed away before principal photography concluded. The final moments of that film were genuinely moving, even classy, a fond farewell to its late star and his onscreen alter-ego Brian. Had this been the conclusion of "The Fast and the Furious" as a whole, it would have gone out on a high note. Where there's blockbuster money to be made, however, there will always be another installment. One wishes "The Fate of the Furious" could have kept the well wishes and momentum going, but instead it has sunk back into mediocrity. Director F. Gary Gray (2009's "Law Abiding Citizen
") is no James Wan, and returning writer Chris Morgan has found himself with a workable story but no worthwhile set-pieces upon which to string the drama.
While honeymooning in Cuba with main squeeze Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is paid a visit from the sultrily dreadlocked Cipher (Charlize Theron), a cyberterrorist harboring the one thing that could make him turn against the ones he loves. When DSS Agent Luke Hobbs' (Dwayne Johnson) Berlin mission to retrieve an electromagnetic weapon of mass destruction is intercepted by a suddenly-rogue Dom, his crewRoman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges), computer hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and a heartbroken Lettyare left bewildered why their faithful leader has seemingly turned on them. Enter covert government operative Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), who enlists their helpand that of freed convict and sworn enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)to track down Cipher and Dom and stop no less than the start of a nuclear war.
With the exception of the early intrigue involved in Dominic's decision to suddenly drop his family and start working for the malicious Cipher, "The Fate of the Furious" is surprisingly humdrum, unable to compete with the strongest of the past pictures' car chases and auto-centric stuntwork. Whereas "Furious Seven
" featured at least two armrest-clenching centerpieces marrying gloriously over-the-top ingenuity with masterfully orchestrated intensity (one set in the Caucasus Mountains, the other in and around Abu Dhabi's 154-floor Burj Khalifa skyscraper), this eighth chapter plays like an afterthought. Oh, sure, there is an early, fiery race through the streets of Havana, a middle-act jaunt in Manhattan involving a parade of out-of-control, autodrive-activated vehicles, and an icy Russia-based climax replacing a kitchen sink with a submarine, but none of these provide the viewer with more than empty, disconnected spectacle. There is a difference between merely blowing up and crashing things real well and building actual high-wire suspense, and this is what separates the particularly inspired previous picture with this rather forgettable follow-up.
The veteran cast members are clearly at home in their roles by now, and they fill them well even when they're working against a dopey script and dopier dialogue. The soul of the proceedings lies with Vin Diesel's (2013's "Riddick
") Dominic and Michelle Rodriguez's (2013's "Machete Kills
") Letty, who can never seem to be happy for more than two minutes before all hell breaks loose once again. Still, there is chemistry between these two, and Rodriguez does especially fine work as she grapples with Dom's overnight change into a person she doesn't recognize. As Hobbs, Dwayne Johnson (2015's "San Andreas
") is effortlessly likable, just as he always is.
The turnabout of Jason Statham's (2015's "Spy
") Deckard Shaw from a vengeance-seeking bad guy who has cold-bloodedly killed members of Dom's team into an affable, wisecracking ally is less successful, as implausible as it is nonsensical. And then there's Charlize Theron (2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road
"), new to the series as devious megalomaniac Cipher. Her whispered monotone intimidations signal she is not to be messed with, but they leave no room for anything more than one-note villainy. Theron fully commits, but there's only so much she can do with a role that requires she stand around in a room and type on computers for the duration.
"Why live a quarter mile at a time when you can live your whole life that way?" Cipher posits to Dominic, the words practically licking from her lips. Her attempts to sway Dom to the dark side are no doubt bound for failure, but the question of why he must suddenly answer to her every whim is a compelling one. While the reveal arguably comes a bit too early, it is in Dom's interpersonal quandary where "The Fate of the Furious" is at its sharpest. The darkness of this particular premise doesn't easily mesh with the random one-liners shoehorned in, leaving a bad taste in one's mouth. Suffice it to say, Roman yelling, "Big Sexy coming through!" as he zooms through the city, chasing down a nuclear weapon and threatening the lives of every New Yorker in sight, probably should have been excised. Where the biggest disappointment comes from is in the series' usual bread and butter: the high-throttle action scenes. They are technically impressive but underwhelming, delivered with little suspense, imagination or finesse. "The Fate of the Furious" ends on a predictable but sweet note signaling Paul Walker's spirit will live on in the series even as he is no longer able to physically be part of them. Based on the evidence here, perhaps an even better legacy may have been to close the book on this franchise while all involved were still ahead.