With its deep dive into black-ops counter-terrorism and outlandish sequence set inside Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Towers, James Wan’s Furious 7 pushed the Fast and the Furious series so deep into total lunacy that it was nearly impossible to trace the film back to the first, a trendy little number about a group of small-time car thieves. That sense of exhaustion pervades F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious, an overstuffed bore that, like the cinematic equivalent of a Call of Duty video game, finally tips the franchise over from modestly thoughtful stupidity into tedious, loud inanity.
Many of the film’s issues are embodied by its outlandish, two-dimensional villain: Cipher (Charlize Theron), a cyberterrorist seeking control of weapons of mass destruction to cow the world’s superpowers. She’s so far removed from any shred of grounded reality that she drags an already goofy franchise into 007 terrain. Which is to say that she’s a grab-bag of clichés: Decked out in a Metallica T-shirt and sporting stringy dreads, she looks like Hollywood’s concept of a hacker circa 2002. To gather her weapons, Cipher forcibly recruits Dom (Vin Diesel), because, as ever in the Fast and the Furious world, the only way to do anything—filching an EMP device, imparting life lessons about family and respect, filing taxes—is behind the wheel of an automobile. But where earlier series antagonists had at least some identifiable, personal motivation, Cipher is simply vile, and her apocalyptic vision is so silly that it ironically lessens the franchise’s previously established stakes.
Speaking of villains, Dom is reaching the point where he has nearly as many former adversaries hanging around as he does lifelong pals. This has been one of the charms of the series to date, particularly when gargantuan DSS agent and quipmaster general Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) joined Dom’s posse. But the series jumps the shark here when Dom is paired with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The fact that Deckard murdered a friend of the group—Han in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift—goes unmentioned, and soon he’s cracking wise with Luke, the two busting up over shared insults in a sign of their professional respect for one another. These characters once drew on their entwined backstories, but here such feelings as nagging animosity are perfunctorily acknowledged before quickly being smoothed over.
By sanding down the quirks and histories of these characters, The Fate of the Furious loses sight of what made the Fast and the Furious films work in the first place. From the start, and especially since the fourth film’s franchise reset, these films have fundamentally hinged on the small moments of vulnerability and contentment shared between lovers and especially friends. This came into sharper focus as the actors aged, believably turning characters introduced as young hot-rodders into sober, reflective adults. That was especially true of Diesel, who brought a world-weary quality to his last few outings as Dom that’s absent throughout his scenes of the man yelling intensely at Cipher when her mind games push him past his breaking point.
The Fate of the Furious might have saved itself with its action sequences, but they reach a new level of pandemonium for the series without matching the sheer abandon of the centerpieces of the last few films. An opening race in Havana is a dull nod to the franchise’s roots, and it runs so smoothly on autopilot that even when Dom’s car explodes, the crowd of onlookers continues to stand in the path of destruction, obliviously cheering as flames roar from the vehicle’s engine. Cipher goes to a lot of trouble to abduct Dom and ensure his loyalty, but in a scene where she hacks every auto-drive vehicle in a New York neighborhood to literally rain cars from garages to incapacitate a Russian minister toting around a suitcase full of nuclear codes, one may wonder why Dom is needed at all other than to walk up and grab the parcel. The film’s climactic scene involves Russian separatists, a tank towing a Lamborghini on cracking ice, and a nuclear submarine, yet the overall structure merely repeats similar closing sequences from the last few Fast and the Furious films. It’s a fact that downing a sub with a car is different than downing a plane with one, but it sure looks the same in execution.
It was only a matter of time before the Fast and the Furious ran out of steam, and both the real-life death of Paul Walker and the sweet tribute to him that closed Furious 7 marked a logical endpoint for the series. That unfortunate confluence of events tied a neat bow onto the overarching theme of family that forms the glue of this franchise. The Fate and the Furious grimly attempts to continue that thread with certain subplots, from a baby who’s introduced solely to induce Dom into obedience to Cipher, to the glimpsed filial bonds of Deckard’s family throughout scenes that are mostly played as comedy. Chucking the franchise’s propensity for sincerity out the window, this film marks the first entry since 2 Fast 2 Furious to underestimate the importance of its characters’ underlying sense of love for one another and how it’s worked to make the absurdity of these films’ surface-level plots more compelling.