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'The Fate Of The Furious' Runs On Diesel Fumes

The aptly named villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) recruits Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in The Fate of the Furious. Universal Pictures hide caption

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Universal Pictures

The aptly named villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) recruits Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in The Fate of the Furious.

Universal Pictures

Has any movie franchise ever swole up more unrecognizably than The Fast & the Furi-ad? Its opening heat, back in 2001, was just a humble Point Break knockoff. Fourteen years later, Furious 7 overcame the death of its second banana, Paul Walker, during production to gross a billion-and-a-half dollars. By then, the series had reinvented itself as an globetrotting heist/spy/wrestling franchise, one as reliant on digital animation and unbound by verisimilitude as any superhero epic. Why just rip off Point Break when you can rip off ... everything?

Vin Diesel sat out a couple of sequels before returning as producer, star, and self-described "saga visionary" with the 2009 model, Fast & Furious. (His vision for the saga did not include definite articles.) The series found its golden mean with 2011's Fast Five, when Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson came aboard as a Federal agent shrinkwrapped in GSA-issue Under Armour. If the affable, versatile Johnson wasn't a bigger draw than the surly, one-note Diesel back then, he certainly is now. The frame is no longer big enough for the both of them: When Johnson threw an Instagram fit while shooting the new The Fate of the Furious last summer, it smelled like Universal's (totally ripped) publicity arm was cooking up a Diesel v. Johnson rivalry to sell the movie.

In fact, the two leads' mutual disdain is the most convincing thing in it.

Maybe if incoming director F. Gary Gray had found a way to channel their umbrage onscreen, this gears-grinding eighth chapter wouldn't feel so bloated and listless. Instead, Gray — a journeyman whose relevant experience includes the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, but who also made the much-loved comedy Friday and the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton — uses every trick he can to avoid having Diesel and Johnson on set at the same time. It's a hindrance that probably made his days easier, but it lets the air out of the movie's tires, bigly.

Johnson is still second-billed to Diesel, but it's clearer than ever that he's eating Diesel's lunch now. This time around, he even takes command of Dominic Toretto's bickering band of con men (plus Michelle Rodriguez and Nathalie Emmanuel) when Dominic Toretto — everyone in this movie is in the habit of speaking his first and last name aloud, as though language has not yet invented a pronoun that can contain his full Diesiality — gets blackmailed into betraying his "family."

I'll withhold the specifics of how he's blackmailed (coughcoughsecretlovechildcough); but for a franchise that wants so desperately to reek of sweat and engine grease, these movies sure are soapy.

Moreover: if this crew was anything like the family Diesel's character is forever insisting it is, he would just tell them he's in a jam and ask their help instead of making them believe he's gone rogue. ("Dominic Toretto has just gone rogue!" one of them says, helpfully.) But even a sliver of vulnerability would be too much for the brittle, tatted-up ego of Dominic Toretto, née Vin Diesel, Saga Visionary. We're supposed to root for this fathead jerk over Imperator Furiosa?

Oh, right: His blackmatrix is Charlize Theron, who mumbles her way through monologues about "choice theory" when she isn't typing and seething into a headset. This sort of techno-temp role has defeated many an Oscar-winner; it isn't Theron's fault that she's no better than Tyrese Gibson here. She plays an evil hacker called Cypher, described by Ludacris as "like a digital Act of God!" Maybe he meant to say "a digital God"? Don't worry about it. The only words that matter is this liberally body-sprayed universe are vrooooom and screeeeeeech.

Though these films lost any sense of street-level plausibility many software upgrades ago, Fate of the Furious remains true to their chop-shop aesthetic in the sense that its flashiest parts are all stolen. Its big Act Two set piece, wherein hundreds of driverless remote-controlled cars assault a diplomatic convoy in lower Manhattan, is an expansion of a bit from Terminator 3, 14 years ago. It was a good gag back then and it still is, but as with so many Furious action sequences, it's marred by conspicuous computer animation that makes it seem about as dangerous as a screensaver, no matter how hard Diesel frowns at his steering wheel. The finale, which involves a bunch of muscle cars plus a tank chasing a hijacked Russian submarine (!) across an ice shelf, is practically photographed but glacially paced. It feels longer than The Hunt for Red October all by itself.

Of course, there are only so many permutations of how fast-moving objects can collide with one another. But the Furious-es are even less creative when it comes to their MacGuffins (Electro-Magnetic Pulse generator, nuclear "football") and their dialogue. In this one, when a bad guy gets ground up by an airplane propeller like that Nazi strongman in Raiders of the Lost Ark did a hundred years ago, Johnson gets a inspired look and says... "Nasty." It's like a placeholder for a real joke no one cared enough to write. I get that these movies are not primarily targeted at English-speaking audiences, but they've got a writer (Chris Morgan, who's done a half-dozen of these) on payroll. He could try writing a little. It would pass the time.

And time this movie has got: 136 minutes, and the 40 or so good ones are mostly front-loaded. The opening, wherein Diesel resorts to some unconventional driving to win a hairline victory in a Havana street race, has a clarity and tension that's otherwise absent. Of course, the sequence begins with Diesel telling a Cuban never to lose his "Cuban spirit" and ends with him being swarmed by adoring children. (Once again: He produced this movie.)

Johnson gets a fun introduction when we see him off-duty, coaching his daughter's soccer team. He then proceeds to discuss supposedly Top Secret intelligence outdoors, in the open, at said soccer game.

Apologists for this series insist its bone-deep dumbth doesn't matter; and its roided-out box office tells no lies. But these movies' fundamental laziness is an insult to every writer who ever lost sleep trying to make a genre movie make sense. Trying is for suckers, these movies tell us. Jokes are for chumps. Writing is for losers.

Fate's MVP is Jason Statham, who played the villainous Deckard Shaw the last time around but he's on our team now. He's almost as funny in this as he he was in Spy. Watching The Transporter and The Rock antagonize one another (Johnson promises to "slap that whisker biscuit off [Statham's] face," because hair is a touchy subject with this crowd) is as good as this movie gets — save for a two-scene drop in by a certain Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, who looks like she's having more fun here than anybody.

Its a weird takeaway from what used to be a muscle-car franchise, but The Fate of the Furious adds up to a compelling case for energy independence: More Johnson, more Statham, and a lot less Diesel.