LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - If there were a hierarchy of action cinema, you'd find a masterpiece of speed-demon nihilism like "Mad Max: Fury Road" at the very top, and on the next level a superior Bond or Bourne film or "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." At the bottom would be the visceral, live-wire kicks of B-movie brutality.
Somewhere in the middle are the "Fast and the Furious" films, which started off as drag-race movies but morphed, over time, into an outlandishly extravagant genre all their own, one with just enough heart - and, yes, mind - to make the stunts and velocity seem like something larger: a pure expression of character. And that's never been more true than it is of the eighth film in the series, "The Fate of the Furious," which may just be the most spectacular one yet.
That's because more than any previous entry, it draws elements from every conceivable level of the action-cinema hierarchy. It's a pedal-to-the-metal car-chase movie. And a global thermonuclear cyberthriller in which a supervillain, known as Cipher (Charlize Theron), tries to teach the world's superpowers a deadly lesson. It's also a suspenseful "inter-family" drama that takes the gruntingly gruff and loyal Teddy-bear badass Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and figures out a way to pit him against all of his beloved comrades, including Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), whom he's finally just married. The movie is also a playfully sadistic bare-knuckle rouser, with actors like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham inflicting some serious bone damage.
You'd think that merging all those elements would make "The Fate of the Furious" a bit of an overcooked stew. But the director, F. Gary Gray ("Straight Outta Compton"), who has shown a propensity for action going back to "Set It Off" (1996) and "The Italian Job" (2003), now proves that he's a high-flying ballistic wizard at it. "The Fate of the Furious" is nothing more than pulp done smart, but scene for scene it's elegant rather than bombastic, and it packs a heady escapist wallop.
The fact that it's the first film in the series to have been made after the death of Paul Walker (and the first not to feature him since "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," in 2006) only gives fans that much more of a reason to rally around it. Box office should be over-the-top.
The movie opens in Havana, where Dominic and Letty are on their honeymoon, an interlude that's interrupted when Dom agrees to race a Cuban hipster-bully who tried to make off with his cousin's jalopy. It's an uneven race, with Dom stuck driving the slow-poke jalopy, which he strips down to its engine and outfits with a gas canister that will make the car either go intensely fast or blow up (or both). It's the one classical old-school race in the entire movie, and it's a true rouser, with Havana making for the most decorous of Old World mazes, and Dom, in the home stretch, driving the car in reverse, its engine engulfed in flame. But when a slow-mo overhead shot shows him inching ahead across the finish line, damned if you don't want to fist-pump.
Following that rapid-fire appetizer, the film teases out its main course: Cipher, in twisty long blond tresses, introducing herself to Dom and telling him that he's about to go to work for her (and against his friends). When he balks, she shows him something on a cellphone that changes his mind. What is it? The film keeps us in suspense for a while, but for Dom to cave in and betray those he's closest to, you know it must be serious.
Theron proves an ace villain: imperious yet personable, with a leonine cunning and directness. Cipher is some sort of vaguely left-wing power-mad cyber-warrior (she doesn't want the usual money or chaos - she wants to force the world's nations into "accountability"), and even her curled finger-taps on the keyboard dance with personality.
Meanwhile, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), the jaunty U.S. covert-ops shark who leaves no traces, coerces Dom's crew into going back to work for him, a process that involves slapping Johnson's Luke Hobbs in prison, all so that he can break out along with Statham's Deckard Shaw, the rogue assassin who's his loathed rival. Johnson and Statham get the hostile jabs flowing, but really, that's the language of this whole crew. The other sparring partners include the peacockish Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and the dweebish Tej Parker (Ludacris), as well as the entire team ganging up on Nobody's assistant, played by Scott Eastwood with a by-the-book dork decency that grows more winning.
"The Fate of the Furious" feels standard-issue when the crew uses the God's Eye global-scan computer program (sorry, but it's got nothing on the stuff in the latest "Bourne" film -- or the real-life NSA), or when Helen Mirren shows up, in a too-cute cameo, as Deckard's Cockney spy-overseer mom. Yet the action set pieces are stunning, staged with a flamboyance that's surgical in its precision, and that emerges from their logistical sense of purpose.
A chase through Manhattan, with an army of remote-controlled "zombie" cars trapping the vehicle of the Russian defense minister, who is toting a suitcase of nuclear codes, really seems to be taking place in teeming, anything-goes New York City. It culminates in Dom facing down his colleagues, who spear his jet-black Mad Max mobile from four directions, and that still isn't enough to stop the guy. Vin Diesel has become a great action star, not just because of how he delivers those on-the-nose revenge lines but because he expresses sheer will - the will to win, to survive, to drive - in every muscular grimace.
The movie climaxes with a preposterously elaborate showdown at a military outpost in the frozen Russian wasteland, and the sequence has everything: a zipping-across-the-glacier momentum that merges with destruction, a humongous submarine smashing through the ice, fireballs that pop much larger than you expect.
In the end, I'm not sure how I feel about our heroes being made into a pack of world-saving James Bonds, but what's clear is that there's probably no turning back. Most franchises, after eight films, are feeling a twinge of exhaustion, but this one has achieved a level of success - and perpetual kinetic creative energy - that's a testament to its commercial/cultural/demographic resonance. So it only makes sense that its characters must now do important things. Breaking the speed limit never looked so responsible.
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman