2.5 stars (out of 4)
Calling it right now: In The Fast & the Furious Part 12, our favorite merry team of speed bandits will race a space shuttle straight to the moon. And they’ll win.
The franchise that started off as a gritty, low-budget cat-and-mouse action pic back in 2001 has ballooned into a mega-commercial, star-packed extravaganza. Plot, characters, simmering tension and, heck, general common sense have all taken a back seat to high-octane chase scenes. (Forget back seat. They’re in the trunk of a Volvo on the bottom of the ocean.) That’s not to say the one-lane approach is a negative — over the past 16 years, F&F has been delirious fun times. (See: Furious 7, Fast Five.) There are moments of adrenaline-packed joy in this eighth installment as well. When star Vin Diesel motors a souped-up sports car over a moving submarine in Russia, however, one is left wondering how much gas is left in the tank.
By the way, all these Car and Driver-approved puns are totally permissible considering Diesel grumbles at one point, “It’s not about what’s under the hood. It’s about who’s behind the wheel.” So there!
The prologue encapsulates all that is good and holy about the saga. In Havana, Diesel’s Dom interrupts his honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to race a local along the crowded, sun-drenched streets. His car ends up a fireball in the water but no matter: He squeaks out a victory! Adoring kids bombard him like a soccer star! The women strut around in too-short shorts with their ass cheeks hanging out! If the entire 125-minute film consisted of Dom showing off his racing skills and his muscled, hairless bod to hapless strangers in Cuba, it would have been all aces. But noooooo. It had to turn into some sort of hifalutin, generic James Bond/Mission: Impossible mashup, and the entire world is at stake.
Charlize Theron’s villainess — a beautiful flaxen-haired criminal mastermind named Cypher (or is it Cipher? For sure it’s not Furiosa) — soon turns up in Havana and secretly blackmails Diesel to rejoin the dark side. She has lofty aspirations to use her technology savvy to start World War III, and with Dom as her cohort under duress, she’s an unstoppable force. The familiar wisecracking gang, played by the likes of Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, is rounded up once again. And now they’re joined by Furious 7’s baddie (Jason Statham) and Scott Eastwood's neophyte law enforcer.
Passports are (presumably) stamped in Berlin, New York City and some ice fortress in Russia as the gang tries to stop Theron & Co. from global destruction. There’s a lot of talk about a nuclear football. Whatev. Only in the F&F universe can a serious global threat be treated as a tedious narrative detail. The requisite extended chase scenes, as directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) are solid, if nothing to drive home about. Though perhaps there’s irony in a set piece featuring “zombie” vehicles driving themselves.
Instead, F8 squeaks by on the considerable charm of its chummy cast — half of the guys, including the underutilized Eastwood, can carry a movie on their broad shoulders. Former enemies Johnson and Statham insult each other in such descriptive, expletive detail that one exchange ends with them cracking up. Self-deprecating Gibson and Ludracris also provide much comic relief. It’s needed: Paul Walker’s former cop Brian O’Connor is now living happily with his wife on a beach somewhere, but, IRL, his absence is greatly felt. And shockingly, Theron fails to fill the void. Her vixen is more robotic than ruthless and spends too much time in cutaway shots barking orders into a Bluetooth gizmo. Where’s all her vampy Oscar-caliber scenery chewing? The role begs for it.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that audiences shouldn’t be terribly concerned about the fate of the furious. F8 will likely make a kajillion dollars, and two more sequels are already on the books. Just buckle up knowing that the once-pulse pounding franchise has likely reached the point of no return.
(The Fate of the Furious opens in theaters on Friday, April 14.)