The Fate Of The Furious, the eighth entry in the infinite (The) Fast And (The) Furious film series, is nominally fun. It has jet packs, snowmobiles, angry bearded Russians, exotic cars swerving around a fissuring sheet of ice, a submarine, and Jason Statham shooting his way through tight quarters while toting a goo-gooing baby à la Hard Boiled—all in the same set piece, as a matter of fact. But the movie (henceforth abbreviated as F8) is in many stretches as listless and pointless as the lesser Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond movies from which it appears to have borrowed its plot. The villain is an allegedly sexy superhacker/cyber terrorist, given the Matrix-y handle of Cipher (Charlize Theron) in what appears to be an admission of screenwriting failure. Thanks to some leverage that is pointlessly withheld for a chunk of the first act, she is able to strong-arm Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the leader of the Fast And (The) Furious’s gang of drag racers turned master criminals turned secret agents, into going rogue to help her steal a few weapons of mass destruction.
If F8 were at all invested in Dom’s team, this apparent betrayal might be a source of tension, conflict, or any of those other things that are generally used to involve a movie audience in a more than superficial way. But no, the Toretto bunch is mostly reduced to incredulous reactions and expository techno-babble, like some mutated melt monster of boilerplate dialogue. With the logic that three bald heads are better than one, Dom’s absence elevates Staham’s Deckard Shaw, the villain of Furious 7, to the status of replacement member, to the effortlessly resolved chagrin of the Hulk-strong Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), another former Toretto nemesis turned ally. The plot follows a Bond-ian course of international locations, beginning with a drag race in Havana and ending with a multi-vehicle free-for-all on a frozen lake in Siberia, as Hobbs, Shaw, and what’s left of the gang (Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel) track Dom and Cipher with the help of their pecker-neck G-man handler (Scott Eastwood).
For something that is so flagrantly silly, F8 is awfully prone to lapses of self-seriousness and speechifying, with its own small zoo of animal-metaphor-based monologues. Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, the remake of The Italian Job) is allergic to suspense—which is really a shame, as F8 contains what is, in concept, the most surreal set piece in the series and one of the most inspired bouts of vehophobia since Mad Max. In this sequence, which happens about halfway through the tiresomely long film, Cipher uses her godlike hacking prowess to mobilize hundreds of taxis and passenger vehicles against Dom’s team in midtown Manhattan. Drivers, passengers, and passerby scream as the cars mass into a zombioid swarm. It builds to a Happening-esque scene of parked cars reversing to certain doom out of a multistory structure, plummeting like proverbial lemmings in their suicidal migration to the street below. In Gray’s hands, this George A. Romero-ian sight—the day of the automotive undead—is reduced to reaction shots and gummy-candy clumps of digital cars.
Not that Gray is visually incompetent; the opening drag race, with its dueling hot rods and supersaturated Step Up palette of bright colors and cheering extras, is both the most straightforward and best directed action sequence in F8. But the series’ plotlines have largely abandoned the thrill of the nitrous-boosted finish for the spectacle of mayhem, and these expected ballets of exotic twisted metal, military technology, and tensed steel cabling (always with the cables!) seem to be beyond Gray’s abilities. (He does the movie no favors by repeatedly quoting Mad Max: Fury Road in the climax.) For once, the violence feels off-putting—especially in a sequence involving a wrecking ball and a small fleet of German police cars in pursuit. The series’ affable, hijinks-centric Saturday morning cartoon mentality always leads its characters to forgive and forget; one presumes Cipher will join the team a sequel or two from now, provided the box office numbers line up. But more so than in any of the other movies, Dom’s wrecking crew of car nuts comes across like survival-of-the-speediest tacho-fascists, high-fiving their way through a path of destruction and to a collateral death toll that one presumes now numbers in the hundreds.