‘Furious’ franchise still running on Diesel, but tank is almost empty

The Fate of the Furious finds our L.A. street-rod gang a long way from home, in just about every way. 

Case in point: Way back in 2001, when we were enjoying the surprise hit The Fast and the Furious, about multiracial, multiethnic hip-hop motorheads from SoCal, did anyone foresee eight of these movies (at least), including one with Helen Mirren? (For Furious fans who don't know her, she won an Oscar for playing the queen of England -- think of it as The Fastidious and the Imperious.)

The Furious movies have made nearly $4 billion worldwide. Without superheroes, that’s pretty damn good. Early entries helped show Hollywood that hip-hop culture had crossed racial lines (the new one is fittingly directed by Straight Out of Compton’s F. Gary Gray) and went on to ride the wave of global distribution/diversity, traveling to other continents, picking up international stars along the way, making money everywhere it went. 

Fate (Furious Eight) starts in Cuba, goes to Manhattan and on to Russia, on the trail of crew leader Dom (Vin Diesel), who has “gone rogue.” A hacker (Charlize Theron in ice-queen-sorceress mode) is blackmailing him -- she needs his driving skills and muscle car to assist in her plan of world domination. In her lair, an airplane constantly circling the Earth, she blabs to Dom about her angry-hacker ethos, which she periodically underlines by commanding a henchman to hold a gun to a baby's head (perhaps it's a United flight).

Dom’s crew — baffled but still loyal — tracks him from place to place, engaging in car stunts wherever they go. These are competent: a drag race in Havana, an interesting piece of conjecture set in Manhattan about what would happen if (when?) a hacker gained control of our computerized vehicles, and the grand finale -- on the ice in frozen Russia, with beautiful cars, tanks, snowmobiles, and a submarine. 

The last sequence has a swollen, Bond-movie feel to it, perhaps abetted by all the British people involved in Fate of the Furious. Mirren has a small, funny role; Jason Statham returns; and Nathalie Emmanuel is still part of the team.

Stunts aside, Fate rests on the question of whether Dom's values -- friends and family above all -- can be exploited or warped by malicious forces. It’s not very suspenseful, and the movie doesn’t take it seriously. It leans heavily on macho laughs, the tough-guy rivalry between Statham and Dwayne Johnson, who returns as. …

Well, at this point, the job assignments are immaterial. Lines between law and outlaws  have blurred. Kurt Russell is back as Mr. Nobody, a mysterious “agency” fixer, this time with a straitlaced assistant (Scott Eastwood) whom everybody mocks. 

It comes down to who is good and who is bad, and the good people value social bonds -- loyalty, macho attitudes, and by macho I mean Michelle Rodriguez, who adds Russian paramilitary separatists to the impressive career list of people and space aliens she has beaten up.  

On that point, and on its love of car culture, Fate of the Furious is losing focus. As the screen fills up with digitized machines and celebrities, original crew members (Tyrese, Ludacris) are getting crowded out. Without its blended and extended family, Furious has the generic appeal of an Expendables sequel, not that folks seem to mind.

The fate of the Furious franchise is to follow the money, and there is apparently no reason to stop now. 

The Fate of the Furious

Directed by F. Gary Gray. With Helen Mirren, Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Elsa Pataky. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language.).