The Fate of the Furious’ is always crashing in the same car

Apparently this is what the inside of Vin Diesel’s head looks like.

Two stars

The Fate of the Furious Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

Somehow, we live in a world in which there are eight Fast and Furious movies (with two more on the way), and those of us who’ve never seen the appeal of those movies must come to terms with that. For fans who get excited at every new absurd escalation of car-based action, The Fate of the Furious will probably prove satisfactory. But the bigger and more popular these movies get, the more each installment strains to top the previous one, cramming in more characters and more outlandish set pieces. This time around, the car-racing outlaws take on a nuclear submarine rising out of a frozen bay, and it somehow manages to be underwhelming.

Not only has the action drifted further away from anything resembling reality, but the continuity is also hopelessly convoluted, to the point that making sense of the character relationships and the team’s past missions requires a Ph.D. in Fastandfuriousology. Longtime writer Chris Morgan (who’s scripted all but the first two movies) and incoming director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) pile on more characters and new back story this time, as veteran car-racer and human concrete slab Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is forced to betray his associates and work for the evil Cipher (Charlize Theron) on some ill-defined scheme to steal weapons and threaten world governments.

It doesn’t really matter, of course, since the movie is really about Dom and his teammates driving souped-up cars and delivering one-liners, which they do to occasionally amusing effect. Especially following the death of co-star Paul Walker (whose character gets a brief but sweet tribute), Diesel is now the franchise’s kingpin, but it’s Dwayne Johnson as disgraced government agent Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham as villain-turned-reluctant-ally (these characters always end up teaming up with their adversaries) Deckard Shaw who really carry the movie. They’re both better actors and better action heroes than Diesel, and their bickering hints at a fun buddy-cop movie beneath all the franchise bloat.

There are approximately 46,548,649,579,570 other characters, including new ones played by Scott Eastwood, Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju and, God help us, Helen Mirren, all of whom get a handful of lines to sort of justify their continued presence in the series. Theron seems to be having fun playing the bad guy, but Cipher is a supremely silly antagonist, with a name out of a lesser James Bond movie and all-purpose “hacking” abilities from some mid-’90s cyber-thriller. She spends most of her time in a command center pressing buttons or ordering other people to press buttons. At one point, she takes remote control of seemingly every car in New York City (apparently no one drives older models without computer guidance systems), literally conducting a car chase by proxy. The movie is equally schematic and empty.

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