*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language)
Released: April 14, 2017
Runtime: 136 minutes
Director: F. Gary Gray

Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Jason Statham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Scott Eastwood, Kristofer Hivju, Helen Mirren

The Fast and Furious films are really stupid movies, having evolved into an ersatz “Mission: Impossible for Dummies”, but they just so happen to also be perfect examples of exactly why people go to the movies.

There are many reasons for their appeal, all easy to understand (even if I’ve never fully shared them), one of which is that they’re so patently ridiculous – or should I say ludacris? The Fate of the Furious takes that absurdity to the next level with the most broad comic relief of the series. That amplifies the stupidity but it also amplifies the fun, making this eighth installment about as good as the franchise has ever been.

Everything you’ve come to expect from these hyper-adrenalized live action cartoons is here: muscle cars, machismo, personal vendettas, impossible stunts, high tech flash, snarky faceoffs, intense whispering (lots of that), guns, crashes, explosions, wreckage, carnage, winking mayhem, scantily clad T&A, and various forms of attitude-driven, er, anatomy measuring. The Fate of the Furious embraces its ballistic balls-to-the-wall globetrotting excess without apology.

It also carries on the themes of family (which has fostered the widespread affection for these characters) within the most sincere – rather than calculated – representation of multiethnic diversity to ever be expressed in a Hollywood franchise, even as it also tries to add intrigue to those virtues with an apparent act of betrayal by their leader, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel, who – I kid you not – legitimately seems to be, in key moments, going for his Oscar).

The film opens with what may be the first great result from Obama’s normalizing of relations with Cuba: an old school drag race through the streets Havana, with that nation’s infamously outdated cars of forty and fifty years ago. Toretto’s makeshift ingenuity that juices up his bucket of bolts is as preposterous as you’d expect, nor would you accept anything less. The whole sequence, particularly given its unique setting, instantly vaults it among the series’ best.

From there, writer Chris Morgan (the real mastermind behind these tentpoles, regardless of who’s directing – F. Gary Gray, in this case, of Straight Outta Compton fame) contrives a sinister offer that Toretto can’t refuse. It’s a cruel sort of blackmail arranged by Cipher (Charlize Theron), an international cyber terrorist whose motives are mercenary, not ideological. This forces Dom into the criminal underworld, causing him to go rogue against his team (and the U.S. government) in pursuit of nuclear codes.

The stakes, as high as they are, can’t be taken seriously, nor can the shock of Toretto’s traitorous turn. A safe inevitability underscores everything, no matter how dangerous things may get, making this (like the previous films) the equivalent of a $100 million dollar version of a CBS action procedural.

And yet, with the still-inventive action scenes (no small feat, especially eight movies in) fueled by the singular chemistry of this familiar ensemble, The Fate of the Furious soars above your average brainless fare with testosterone spectacle, plus full-throttle charisma oozing out of every single actor (Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in particular, principally when they’re verbally sparring face-to-face).

The macho bravura, brawls, and demands for respect wear thin on me much faster than most (it gets borderline Neanderthal), and the script can give even campy clichéd dialogue a bad name, but at the end of it all few films (and franchises) offer such high, pure levels of shameless and satisfying escapism. So go ahead: check your brain at the door, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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