Like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Boss Baby,” “The Fate of the Furious” features a title in which two key words share the same first letter. That’s one of the most interesting things about it. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
This is the eighth in the franchise, which began with a relatively modest LA street-racing movie in 2001. The film just prior to the new one, “Furious 7,” had a production budget of somewhere between $200 million and $250 million, and it was scaled like a berserk Bond film. Thanks to director James Wan and the cast, a lot of it worked.
It made $1.5 billion, which ensured the next film in the series would take things further into the realm of the huge and the stupid but, with luck and a little wit, good stupid, not stupid stupid.
“The Fate of the Furious” illustrates the limits and hazards of multigenre blockbuster engineering. For an hour, director F. Gary Gray’s pileup of gravity-free drag racing and supercool cyberterrorism stays on the side of the good (or good enough) stupid. It’s ridiculous but fun, as it careens from Havana to Berlin, aided by a spit-ton of medium-grade digital effects.
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But the second hour gets to be a real drag, and not the racing kind. Charlize Theron, glaring the glare of the truly mad and slightly bored, portrays the cyberloon who hijacks a nuclear submarine in icy Russia (played by Iceland). The climax feels approximately 50 years long, and it makes the audience long for a simple scene, back in a garage somewhere, where everyone’s standing around in tank tops.
Screenwriter Chris Morgan has written the majority of the previous “Furious” installments. In “The Fate of the Furious” Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are honeymooning in Cuba, where Dom runs afoul of Cipher (Theron), the blackmailing witch who forces Dom to turn against his gang and join her in her quest for world destabilization via nuclear launch codes.
The gang, led by Dwayne Johnson’s biceps, is all here, be they frenemies (Jason Statham’s ex-assassin) or softies (Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel). Kurt Russell’s back as the man in the black suit with the job assignments and the chipper, I-love-my-job line readings. “Rule No. 1: Know your audience,” he says at one point, and I suppose “The Fate of the Furious” knows that much, though I wonder if the massive global fan base wouldn’t mind getting this franchise back to basics after this exercise in excess.
At one point, Theron’s villainess hacks into 1,000 midtown Manhattan vehicles, remotely, leading to cars plummeting out of fifth-story windows onto other cars, and an impromptu road rally where road rallies should not be held. The scene is tonally confusing: Is it supposed to be funny? Scary? Convincing? Or so video-gamey we’re meant to enjoy the fraudulence?
These days I find it difficult to relax into a scenario involving erratic adversaries hellbent on showing the world they mean business, come what may. This is the ultimate paradox with “The Fate of the Furious.” Maybe a movie needs to be this expensively ridiculous to take your mind off the news. When your own nation’s fate is in the hands of some furiously unpredictable characters, even a series devoted to vehicular mayhem can never go back to the old days.
‘The Fate of the Furious’
Cast: Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell.
Director: F. Gary Gray.
Running time: 136 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content and language).