It’s often said that of all wars, the civil ones are the worst, their internecine nature bringing out the worst in combatants—and it’s a civil war among friends that’s the centerpiece of “The Fate of the Furious,” the eighth picture in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. It’s been an incredible ride for the series, which began in 2001 with a minor-league action movie that exceeded expectations and, over the course of its run, has endured not only a misguided prequel but the death of one of its major stars, Paul Walker. Nothing has slowed down the juggernaut, however, let alone stopped it, and F. Gary Gray’s episode will probably go through the roof in box-office terms.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not just another comic-book-level explosion of muscle-car mayhem, macho posturing, ludicrous stunts and juvenile banter. But it’s been efficiently manufactured, even if it has an assembly-line feel.
The picture opens with the first of many fast-driving sequences, a race between Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Raldo (Celestino Cornielle), a local loan shark in Havana, where he and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are honeymooning; Dom is driving the old jalopy of his cousin Fernando (Janmarco Santiago), and Raldo a really souped-up item, but guess who wins? That prologue takes viewers back to the street-based chases of the earliest installments of the series, and may be viewed as a nostalgia trip for long-time fans.
Immediately, though, Chris Morgan’s script turns to the super-spy stuff that’s increasingly become the franchise’s major thrust. Dom is accosted by a woman (Charlize Theron) who turns out to be a James Bondish-style villainess, though her name is Cipher rather than Spectre. She will eventually be revealed as a genius cyber-hacker with a mission to hold governments “accountable” for their actions. To that end her aim is to gain control of nuclear weapons, and in a move that’s initially kept cryptic but isn’t difficult to predict, she forces Dom to become a reluctant accomplice to her plans.
That takes things to Berlin, where Dom and the rest of his team—Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), as well as Letty—have been enlisted by special ops pal Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to steal an EMP device from a bunch of baddies. But in the ensuing melee—big action scene with many cars!—Dom retrieve it for Cipher instead, leaving Hobbs to take the fall and wind up in prison. No problem: that will bring him face-to-face with old enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), and they break out together—big fight scene!—thanks to Agent Petty (Kurt Russell), aka Mr. Nobody, who wants them to work with the others to track down and take out Cipher. Petty brings along with him an apprentice named Eric (Scott Eastwood), aka Little Nobody, who will become the butt of many of Roman and Tej’s insults.
Then follows the movie’s piece de resistance—Cipher’s computer enlistment of an army of driverless cars to steal a case of Russian nuclear launch codes from the Defense Minister while he’s being driven through the streets of Manhattan with a large police escort. Some of the vehicles actually leap from parking garages onto the street below. The CGI in this sequence is the most elaborate in the picture, and it provide enjoyable visual cacophony, even if one can’t help but think there would be many simpler ways of getting the codes. In any event, the whole team is involved in trying to stop Dom from carrying the case off, but wouldn’t you know it, he gets away, though not before saving Letty from Cipher’s main henchman Rhodes (Kristofer Hivju).
That will take us to the big finale, set at a Russian base where a nuclear sub is the prize. All sorts of vehicles are involved in chases across ice-covered tundra while Cipher tries to eliminate the team with every instrument at her disposal. Of course, she doesn’t count on the canniness of Dom, who has set up—unbeknownst even to his new wife—a complicated plan to break the villainess’ hold over him (the source of which is revealed about halfway through) and allow him, with a bit of help, to foil her dastardly plot.
The action scenes in “Fate” are generally well-done, which should satisfy the franchise’s prodigious fan base. As to the cast, Diesel does what he always does—growl out his lines while striking muscular poses, and Johnson does his familiar he-man shtick predictably, too (an early sequence featuring Hobbs and his daughter is a comic embarrassment). Statham enters into things with relish, though his part in the final reel depends on a form of sappy humor that eclipses even the bickering of Gibson and Bridges (who, tell the truth, come perilously close to resurrecting the comic-relief roles that used to be assigned regularly to blacks in the bad old days). Rodriguez gets to show a lot of concern for her seemingly wayward hubby, but Emmanuel is wasted, and Theron doesn’t do much with the part of Cipher, merely slinking around and issuing stern orders. Russell plays ultra-cool and Eastwood naively rule-bound, while Helen Mirren shows up in an overly cute cameo as Decker’s mother; franchise fans will eat up the reappearances of folks from previous installments, who pop up in the closing hullabaloo. (Happily, Walker’s old character is merely referenced in a few snatches of dialogue.) The technical work is predictably top-flight, with fine lensing by Stephen F. Windon, kinetic editing by Christian Wagner and Paul Rubell, and generally state-of-the-art visual effects, even if there’s some muddiness in the images, especially in the last reel. The movie, of course, leaves ample room for sequels.
In the end, though “The Fate of the Furious” feels like a good deal of wheel-spinning. It will suffice for the action crowd, but doesn’t represent an advance over “Furious 7” (which actually had some better stunts). Given that, it would probably be wise if Morgan stopped including so many variations of that old standby, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” in his dialogue. His characters are constantly saying things like “This is bad!” By the time the credits roll, they might well have persuaded you they’re right.