'The Fate of the Furious'

The reinvention of the Fast & Furious franchise, from Fast Five's rebirth to Furious 7's emotional finale, is nothing short of miraculous. I remember making fun of a friend in high school who saw "that car movie" three times in theaters; now he just looks like a soothsayer who was ahead of the curve. But what goes up must come down, and while The Fate of the Furious occasionally proves as enjoyable and ridiculous as ever, the cracks are beginning to show.

Fate (or F8, which it should've been titled from the get-go) opens with Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) enjoying a honeymoon in Havana. After righting some karmic wrongs through a lengthy street race in a dingy car, Dom is confronted by the mysterious Cipher (Charlize Theron) and is somehow seduced onto the side of evil after one glimpse at an iPhone. On his team's next mission with Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and the gang, Dom runs Hobbs off the road, steals an EMP, and is officially declared "rogue."

In theory, a great idea. At this point the only person Dom's team can't beat is their leader, and Theron is having a great time chewing bad-guy scenery. Of course, this 'turn' has the wind let out of its sails early: everyone finds out soon enough that Dom isn't being mean at all, he's doing what he must to save a member of his family. And though the action set pieces get silly, in a good way—hacked cars flinging themselves from fifth-story windows onto the streets below, a submarine/car chase over ice, The Rock diverting a missile with his feet—it never feels like progress. For the first time in what seems like forever, it feels forced.

F8 is F. Gary Gray's first go-around as the franchise director, taking over for Saw's James Wan. And he mostly sticks to the formula: lots of female butts in the first sequence, a few races, chaos designed to one-up the last bit of chaos, and a barbecue at the end. Yet for whatever reason, the sense of multiculturalism and diversity that made the last few movies stand out has dissipated. Our only new main character of note, sans Theron's Cipher, is Scott Eastwood's Little Nobody, a potential Kurt Russell replacement who is as boring, bland, and overvalued as Whole Foods white bread. We open in Cuba, which feels like the franchise at its most franchise-y, but then we spend most of our time in New York City and Russia. For a bunch of movies that made us laugh and cheer by being absurd, this is paint-by-numbers stuff.

The little missteps start to add up, too. In Furious 7, Paul Walker's Brian was given one of the most unexpectedly tear-jerking goodbyes in cinematic history. His character drove one way; Toretto drove the other, and that was that. Or not. At one point in F8, Letty asks if they should "call Brian" and the team responds with something along the lines of "No way, we said we'd never do that." Everyone nods and returns to their concerns, as if potentially summoning the dead Walker's character to save the day was a feasible response that needed to be addressed at some point in the script.

That is to say: they're running out of steam. It's all been done. Even Vin doesn't seem to care anymore; at one point, the inclusion of Hobbs and Shaw (Jason Statham) were fun shots in the arm. Toretto had been built into such a superman that genuine asskickers were needed to challenge his reign and ultimately fall in line behind the true champion. But now, in F8, Diesel appears to have relinquished all the heavy lifting to them. While Dom anguishes alone in robotic melancholy, Hobbs and Shaw anchor a very fun prison break scene, along with all the other personal action moments worth noting. Vin drives a few cars, breaks one guy's neck, and gets all the glory at the end.

The whole Rock/Diesel feud that preceded F8's release felt like the most cooked-up fake fight in recent pop culture history. Dwayne appears to be literally the nicest man alive, and you never got much sense that Vin was a jerk either. Once we saw the first trailer and it was clear that Dom had turned, you could practically see the dollar signs in their eyes. A WrestleMania blowoff was certainly coming, or at least a lame red-carpet hug that would diffuse all the bad vibes.

But maybe it's real. Maybe all those "unprofessional" whispers—or at least not as professional as the insanely committed Johnson—were true. It sure looked like Diesel was a little mentally checked out on-screen; it's always been absurd that Dom Toretto became one of the most beloved and rewarded characters in movie history, so maybe this is just the universe correcting itself.

Either way, this is the first Furious entry in a while that ends flat. Little is accomplished; nothing is particular prepped for next time either, besides "another chapter in the family's wacky adventures." It feels like wheel spinning, and a cash grab to keep the franchise on our minds and reaching into our wallets. It'll make a trillion dollars, so let's hope everyone comes back fresh for Furious 9. But for someone who has embraced these movies as outrageous, bloated strokes of genius, I can't help but wonder if the summit has been reached and we're on our way back to the bottom.