There are few film series as ridiculously over-the-top as the “Fast and Furious” franchise, packed with souped-up cars, exotic locations, lots of explosions and an ever-growing number of movie stars willing to grab a fat paycheck for having some fun.
The series started back in 2001 as the story of an LAPD cop named Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who was sent undercover to try and bring down a street-racing crew led by Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) that was suspected of a series of high-speed robberies of electronics trucks. He winds up drawn into their world, going rogue and helping Dom escape capture after falling for his sister, Mia.
That sense of outlaw camaraderie took on an ever-growing emotional weight in the sequels, with Dom regarding his crew as family and stressing the importance of that bond. Even as the series morphed into a series of global heist escapades and added stars like Dwayne Johnson, Kurt Russell and Jason Statham to the mix, the movies retained a sense of real heart that was brought to an unexpectedly tragic halt when Walker died in an off-set car crash during the filming of “Furious 7.”
That film dealt with Walker’s death by using his lookalike brothers as stand-ins for his remaining scenes, then sending O’Conner off into the sunset to finally be a stay-at-home father and husband. But the absence of Walker leaves the latest film, “The Fate of the Furious,” with a lack of personality that no amount of action antics can fix.
“Fate” opens in Havana, where Dom and his wife Letty (Michele Rodriguez) are now living, as he is challenged to a street race by a local driving legend for the rights to the prized 1950s-era car he now drives. After winning the race in spectacular fashion, he comes across a beautiful blonde super-hacker known as Cipher (Charlize Theron), who lures him to work for her due to a shocking revelation in a cellphone video that is left unseen by the audience.
Meanwhile, federal agent Ray Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) — who has been recruiting the gang for secret quasi-criminal missions over the past two films — is ordered by a mysterious higher-up to retrieve a stolen electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device that’s gone missing in Berlin. Though he gets our antiheroes onboard with the plan, things go south when Dom abruptly slams his car into Hobbs’ truck amid their getaway from German police and then steals the EMP back from him on Cipher’s behalf.
This betrayal of his friends goes against everything that Dom has always claimed to stand for, and soon we learn why. He discovers that he has an infant son by his former girlfriend Elena (Elisa Patasky), and he has to help Cipher steal the Russian nuclear missile codes from that country’s defense minister amid a diplomatic motorcade in New York City if he wants to keep the child alive.
At the same time, Hobbs is hung out to dry by his own superiors, who allow him to go to prison for his part in the Berlin mayhem. He winds up next cell over from his nemesis, the rogue British Special Forces agent Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), but both are busted out by covert ops kingpin Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and forced to team up and stop Dom and Cipher.
Thus begins a virtually nonstop series of car chases, explosions and shootings that have plenty of flash but even less logic than anything else in the entire series. In one sequence, Cipher has her minions override the computer chips in hundreds of cars before sending the unmanned vehicles crashing through the streets, despite the fact her goal is merely to stop the Russian defense minister and there is no plausible reason for that much mayhem.
But that’s nothing compared to the climactic sequence, in which the gang and Hobbs wind up on a Russian military base in the Arctic, trying to stop a nuclear submarine from being remotely hijacked by Cipher. Little of it makes coherent sense, and amid all the boom-boom, director F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton”) pays precious little attention to any sort of genuine character interaction other than the verbal jousting between Johnson and Statham.
Theron is utterly wasted in her role, merely spouting threats and calling out orders to her underlings while standing around on board a private jet. That lack of a compelling villain also hurts the effectiveness of this entry in the series, making this reviewer furious about the fact that he’ll have to endure the fate of seeing the two remaining proposed sequels. Grade: D
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller
Length: 117 minutes
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Following the misadventures of the four young heroin addicts of the 1997 classic as they face middle age, with Renton returning home from Amsterdam and teaming up with Sick Boy in another attempt to start a brothel only to find Begbie wants violent revenge for his prior double-cross. This tries to recapture the original’s shocking flair but leaves one wishing the gang would grow up. Grade: C
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl
Length: 124 minutes
Directed by: Niki Caro
The true-life story of Antonina Zabinski, who teamed with her husband to smuggle hundreds of Jews through the basement of their residence in the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Beautifully shot and powerfully perfomed, it’s a strong reminder to care in our current times of refugee crises. Grade: A
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline
Length: 129 minutes
Directed by: Bill Condon
This spectacular live-action adaptation of the classic cartoon brings stunning musical numbers to life and adds depth and motivation to the characters, who are expertly cast in this enchanting addition to the Disney Princess canon. Grade: A
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman
Length: 118 minutes
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
A rip-roaring good time and easily the best monster movie in years, more entertaining even than “Jurassic World,” “Kong” features a stellar cast of actors hamming it up as they explore an uncharted island and wind up fighting each other as well as the giant beast Kong. Lots of fun gross-out moments and well worth the ride. Grade: A
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener
Length: 103 minutes
Directed by: Jordan Peele
This inventive thriller, about an African-American man who finds himself trapped amid sinister shenanigans when he visits his white girlfriend’s family at their rural home, is exciting, funny and written and directed with surprisingly stylish flair by comic Jordan Peele of “Key and Peele” fame. Grade: B