? ? 1/2
The films that make up the “Fast and the Furious” franchise — inexplicably on its eighth installment — are review-proof. There is likely no Rotten Tomatoes score that could affect the box office take. But more than that, the often silly, always outrageous, comfortably formulaic films about fast cars and chosen family have a charm that manages to permeate the crusty exterior of even the most curmudgeonly of critics. Most of us got into this gig because movies are fun, and the “Fast/Furious” movies are some of the most fun of all.
F. Gary Gray takes his turn behind the wheel directing “The Fate of the Furious,” but directors come and go. It’s the appropriately named star, Vin Diesel, who always remains the same. Diesel plays Dominic Toretto, who has risen from the Los Angeles outlaw street racing scene to a sort of career as a freelance international driver specializing in the extraction, transportation and removal of highly sensitive material. He’s always being pulled out of an idyllic retirement to do one last job, because, of course, he drives real good.
In the “Furious” franchise, Diesel is never the most interesting person on screen, but as a producer, he has a talent for assemblage, surrounding himself with some of our most charismatic performers. Diesel brings out the best in tough girl Michelle Rodriguez, and found an easy groove with the late Paul Walker. Who knew Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris had such great comic energy before they joined Dom’s crew? He’s collected Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham and even Snake Plissken himself (Kurt Russell) along the way, and in “Fate,” he taps no less then two best actress Oscar winners in Charlize Theron and (no joke) Helen Mirren to come along for the ride.
At first it seems as if Gray might be grounding things in a more realistic world, only because he doesn’t open on sky-diving cars, but rather, on an almost quaint street race in Havana featuring cars from the 1950s. It’s a throwback to the good old days, the essence of what made Dom who he is. But that assumption of a grounded realism turns out to be extremely wrong. The last act involves a high-speed chase across a frozen sea, featuring snowmobiles, a tank, a neon orange Lamborghini and a nuclear submarine, among other things.
Gray doesn’t shy away from some seriously dark material and moments, though that’s balanced by the light-hearted banter that crackles between Johnson and Statham, Gibson and Ludacris, and everyone razzing rookie agent Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood). Tonally, it’s a bit all over the map, but it doesn’t detract from the fun. There are a few cringeworthy moments watching Diesel act across from Theron, as an unblinking, blond-dreaded hacker, and Mirren, who delights in her role as a tough Cockney mum. But Diesel has always been a good sport about letting others steal the show.
“Fate of the Furious” doesn’t achieve anything new for the franchise, and even seems to downshift a bit. Gray fails to reach some of the rather operatic heights and flights of vehicular fantasy that directors like Justin Lin and James Wan pulled off. But there are a few exceptional action sequences, some laughs, and a barbecue at the end with a toast to family, so in the end, “Fate” does manage to deliver the “Furious” goods.