‘The Fate of the Furious’ grinds its gears but finishes strong

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“The Fast and the Furious” was a 2001 “B movie” with a street-racing storyline and cast of charismatic nobodies and wannabes that somehow displayed an extraordinary but believable chemistry. Led by the muscular and gravely voiced Vin Diesel, this “family” produced an exhilarating spectacle in their heavily modified scream machines.

Sixteen years later, not many could have predicted this franchise would last into its eighth iteration. These street racers evolved from petty car thieves seeking a need for speed, to “Ocean’s Eleven,” executing elaborate heists. Now, in “The Fate of the Furious,” the only group capable of stopping World War III is “F8’s” version of “SEAL Team Six.”

Over the years, the production budget has increased over 600 percent while stunts get more imaginative, more elaborate and more preposterous, but in a good way. Fortunately for the fans of this thrill ride, there is always at least one good old-fashioned street race and at least one highly choreographed chase scene of mayhem, with stylish, exotic vehicles.

Not that the scripts are terrible, but even Nicholas Cage would turn these stinkers down. What other plot would an actor named “Ludicris” fit right in? However, the story is just an excuse to feature the “family” and get to the good stuff. It comes together in the end, so for these fans, that’s solid popcorn entertainment greased with Pennzoil 30-weight.

Picking up from directors James Wan and Justin Lin, F. Gary Gray understands this franchise and effectively leverages his renowned experience from “The Italian Job” (2003) and “Straight Outta Compton” (2015). Gray seamlessly re-introduces the myriad of characters. Then, after spinning his wheels, delivers astounding action sequences that keeps the audience riotously entertained and constantly tightening their seatbelts.

Most of the regulars return, minus Jordana Brewster, given the tragic death of co-star Paul Walker. Rejoining are Dwayne Johnson as Federal Agent Hobbs, Kurt Russell as the wisecracking Mr. Nobody, Luke Evans as the evil Owen Shaw, Jason Statham as his brother Deckard, Helen Mirren as their mum and Elsa Pataky as Elena.

New to the ever-growing cast are Scott Eastwood as rookie agent Little Nobody and Charlize Theron as Cipher, the most ruthless villain yet. In “F8,” Dom’s crew has been exonerated and resuming normal lives. While honeymooning in Cuba, Dom finds a street race. Who needs flames painted on the sides, when Dom turns his engine into a scorching furnace? BTW, this is the first Hollywood movie filmed in Cuba in decades.

Out of nowhere, a mysterious woman (Theron) seduces Dom into going rogue. Inexplicably, he betrays his “family.” In New York City, Cipher hacks into hundreds of vehicles for the auto-drive engineers’ worst nightmare. The action then moves to the Russian tundra (filmed in Iceland), where the elite force once again crisscrosses the globe to prevent the anarchist (and Dom) from starting WWIII. Of course, integral to the plan will be a fleet of exotic vehicles performing outrageous stunts never seen before.

Diesel, Johnson and Statham are old-fashioned superheroes. The action is over-the-top, cartoonish and even silly, but that’s why we watch. In every edition, writers Chris Morgan and Gary Scott Thompson, who also created the characters, effectively and affectively, bring the story and characters together for a crowd-pleasing close in the grand finale.

“The Fate of the Furious” is 136 minutes and rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content and language. This franchise succeeds because it tries to be more than what it is, in quantity, not necessarily quality. It’s dumb fun, but it’s honest about that. Believe it or not, “F9” is in the making and “F10” already announced.

The movie is sometimes stuck in second gear and gets a bit tedious, but each time, the next scene gets very fast and very furious once again. This successful series does not imitate “Jason Bourne” and the cast would never fit in with “James Bond.” To best understand this series, its fans would never say, “I liked the book better.”

Ron’s Rating: B  Leigh’s Rating: B+

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Ron & Leigh Martel