By Michael Phillips 2017-04-21

Chicago Tribune

2 stars

Like "Beauty and the Beast," "The Boss Baby" and "The Bad and the Beautiful," "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 was like playing Trackmania Turbo for two hours and 20 minutes, with a few pit stops for reminders of the importance of family.

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, supercool cyberterrorism, vehicular Ice Capades and World War III prevention program stays on the side of the good (or good enough) stupid. It's ridiculous but fun, as it careens from Havana to Berlin and icy, terrorist-ridden Russia played by Iceland, and a spit-ton of medium-grade digital effects.

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. If you babies are gonna whine about spoiler alerts, well, the sub's in the trailers. By that point in "The Fate of the Furious," the apocalyptic scale of the action runs out of tricks even before Hobbs, the Dwayne Johnson character, actually says: "Sorry, guys, I've got no more tricks left." 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 three most hackneyed words in contemporary action filmmaking.

The gang, led by Johnson's biceps, is all here, be they frenemies (Jason Statham's ex-assassin) or softies (Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges and the IT help desk whiz of everyone's dreams, 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? In many ways it's a scene emblematic of modern action movies. Just because you can design and execute such a sequence, that doesn't make it a good idea, or a satisfying series of images.

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, one of my favorite forms of movie mayhem, has a hard time saying it's all a joke. That said: It'll make its billion. That's what it was designed to do.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content and language).

Running time: 2:16

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