In The Fate of the Furious, the eighth installment in the car-jacking, street racing franchise, Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto does the worst thing a man of his values can do: He turns his back on family. That six letter, three syllable mantra is the sentimental thread that holds the Fast and Furious crew together, and what adds heart to an action series suffused with cars and criminals. One would assume there must be good reason to plot an entire film around something so antithetical to the spirit of the series. But that reveal winds up being the silliest and most left-field twist since the time the movies explained Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) return with amnesia.

The new film, directed by Straight Outta Compton’s F. Gary Gray, opens on the sun-baked streets of Havana, Cuba where Dom and Letty are on honeymoon. Though he finds time to squeeze in a wild race with the local champ, Dom admits he’s a bit of a changed man. He’s more at ease here, strolling the Cuban streets with a baguette and a rose, and his usual take-no-prisoners approach to winning has been replaced with a desire to teach his opponents a moral lesson. But the breezy vacation comes to a halt when he meets Charlize Theron’s Cipher, a mysterious woman who has dirt on Dom’s past and blackmails him into joining her operation.

When Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs, who now spends his days coaching his daughter’s soccer team, calls up Dom for help on a mission, the Fast team assembles in Berlin. Cipher has her eye on a powerful nuclear device in transport and Hobbs intends to steal it before she gets the chance. But Dom quickly switches sides and joins Cipher on her quest to control the world’s superpowers. The rest of the film follows the gang, spearheaded by Scott Eastwood’s Eric Reiser, a by-the-book agent (and clearly the pretty boy replacement for the late Paul Walker), as they chase down Dom and Cipher. Eventually we learn the motive behind Dom’s betrayal, a lazy twist that attempts to give the criminal more sentimental depth, but comes off as a gimmick to extend the franchise’s longevity.

As soon as Theron was announced as the villain in the new Fast film I was immediately on-board, as was anyone who enjoyed her Furiosa in Fury Road. But Theron isn’t doing anything remotely interesting here. Her Cipher is a second-rate Bond villain-meets-psychoanalyst who tries to get inside Dom’s head with psychology tactics. Theron has endless opportunities to amp up the wickedness of her character, but she plays her with such icy removal that Theron simply looks bored on screen. Oscar winner or not, Theron should be able jazz up even the worst lines like, “It’s zombie time,” and “I am the crocodile in the watering hole.” (Yes, these are real.) Cipher's hacking operation, which includes Game of Thrones star Kristofer Hivju, is described as so dangerous that Kurt Russell’s agent Mr. Nobody says “even Anonymous won’t touch her.” And yet she seems hardly menacing. Maybe she’s so boring because the majority of her villainy takes places behind a keyboard.

The introduction of cyber terrorism and tech to the Fast franchise with this film isn't only something we’ve seen in every other franchise movie of late, but it diminishes so much of the series’ signature charm. These movies have always been about the thrill of watching people pull off the most crazy-pants stunts atop speeding vehicles in every conceivable way. As our own Matt Singer recently wrote in his piece on the decline of the great movie car chase, the best ones are about real people pulling off stunts with real cars. But in The Fate of the Furious, the majority of action set pieces are about computers controlling cars.

One of the film’s most ludicrous sequences finds Cipher unleashing and controlling an entire city full of parked cars from behind a keyboard. Later, her team remote-controls a submarine full of nuclear weapons in the middle of the Arctic. Don’t get me wrong, both scenes are utterly insane and they build on the how-totally-nuts-can-we-get-then-crank-it-to-10 philosophy of the series. But adding too much wood to the fire can put out the flames, and watching a garage full of cars tossed out a building quickly loses its thrill and feels like overkill. The excitement of the Fast movies isn’t how big the vehicles get or how many they add to the mix, it’s the clever ways the drivers interact with the cars and personalities behind the wheel.

The Fate of the Furious is the most entertaining when Gray cuts back to his core cast of characters. It’s when Tej (Ludacris) giddily drops a wrecking ball from a crane, or when Roman (Tyrese Gibson) cracks one-liners while dodging missiles on ice. While Dom is off being an emotional sap under Cipher’s control, Johnson and Jason Statham are busy giving the film some of its funniest and most thrilling moments in a prison brawl and a fantastic plane shoot-out — and hey, this isn’t me injecting my opinion into Candy Ass-gate, but maybe, just maybe, Universal should take note. Diesel does get the film’s most Fast and the Furious-esque sequence, though, when an early scene finds Dom racing a car as it’s literally going up in flames. That’s the magic of the Fast franchise that keeps us going back for more, the sense of humor and charisma that makes these movies feel more personal than watching a bunch of clashing metal.

There’s certainly a lot to enjoy in The Fate of the Furious, but even the strongest moments are less spectacular this time around. The villain is weak, the big plot twist speaks to the series’ exhaustion of original ideas, and all the crashing and vrooming is just getting bigger, not better. The Fast and Furious franchise hasn’t totally run out of gas yet, but the latest suggests it’s getting close to empty.


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