Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Charlize Theron Star in the first new Fast & the Furious movie without Paul Walker

By Tom Gliatto
April 10, 2017 05:11 PM
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Credit: Universal Studios

If you’ve ever wondered why you get nowhere working your biceps, triceps and even forearms at the gym, The Fate of the Furious should enlighten you: Between them, costars Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel have cornered what looks to be roughly 60 to 70 percent of the world’s arm musculature. If they ever flexed in sync, the isometric pulse might knock out the entire electrical grid.

Which isn’t necessarily out of the realm of possibility in the outlandish story for this, the eighth Fast & Furious film and the first without the late, beloved Paul Walker. What matters to fans, and what will keep them happy during Fate’s two hours, are the spectacular run of car chases and pileups, made all the more fun because, really, even with the remarkable mix of engineering, CGI and choreography, they don’t make much more sense than YouTube clips of cats recoiling from cucumbers.

Fate begins with an exciting drag race down the streets of Havana, Cuba, with Diesel’s car turning into a little flaming asteroid before it pitches into the bay to glow and sizzle in the blue-green water. It’s a nice start, wild and colorful, and suggests that Raul Castro pays much less attention to traffic regulation than the late Fidel ever did.

This time around, Dom Toretto (Diesel) is forced to go rogue by an cyber-villain named Cypher (Charlize Theron). Cypher orders Dom to steal mutual weapons of destruction, a nuclear football and even a docked nuclear sub. At least she doesn’t expect him to pick up her dry-cleaning.

Dom does her bidding, but he’s not happy: He seethes, smolders, occasionally bellows, bangs things with his powerful hands and from time to time looks merely sheepish. If someone in the costume department gave him long gray ears, he’d be a passable Eeyore.

His buddies and associates — Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriquez, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jason Statham, Ludacris and more — assemble like a Western posse with horsepower instead of horses. They scramble to check Dom and reclaim him.

These actors all have the advantage of being able to give easy, casual, cheeky performances — the sort in which every smirk, nod and cocked eyebrow telegraphs that something is about to happen that will make the audience feel not so much surprised as assured that the surprises will continue to arrive on schedule. It’s an enjoyable, surefire technique that scholars have traced back as far as Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo.

Gibson, as Roman, is the best at this — funny, kvetching, tetchy — even when he’s trying to steer a skiddering neon-orange Lamborghini across a lake of white-gray ice with Russians on his tail.

Helen Mirren, in a very small part, knows how to do it, too. She isn’t remotely serious, and if she were you would hope someone in production would dock her part of her salary.

Theron, though, is at sea: The role isn’t far off from a Bond villain, but she underplays it, coolly intellectual and with no dramatic relish, as if Cypher were hoping — after wreaking havoc with the world’s nuclear arsenal — to be considered for an appointment to the UN. This probably isn’t Theron’s fault: She’s saddled with dialogue that sounds as if it were run through a computer program that filtered out all sensible words and left her speaking pure gibberish juice.

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Still, whenever she’s bossing around Diesel, the narrative engine stalls, sputters and, one or two times, threatens to conk out altogether. The movie could also have done without a number of scenes at an “undisclosed location” that doesn’t look as if it were worth ever exposing, or the climactic moment when Theron and Emmanuel fling themselves at their keyboards in an effort to out-hack each other. The maneuvers by which civilization lives or dies are often compared to a chess match, but this looks more like an angry game of checkers.

But back to the big action scenes: One, in Berlin, involves a giant wrecking ball, roughly the size of the one that chased Indiana Jones, swinging up and down a street with pendular momentum and sweeping aside German security forces. (The wrecking ball has a smiley face on it — that’s a nice touch.)

The best one, though, comes roughly in the middle: Cypher hacks into the auto-drive software of hundreds of cars in Manhattan and they charge forth from multi-story garages and plummet to the streets below like lemmings streaming off a cliff. It’s a doozy.

The Fate of the Furious is in theaters Friday, April 14, and rated PG-13.