Overview: A mysterious cyber-terrorist convinces Dom Toretto to turn against his family and aid in her sinister plot. Universal Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 136 minutes.

Neutral: The Fast and Furious franchise is getting a little long in the tooth. Now at eight entries, it’s one of the longest-running Hollywood franchises without reboots, remakes, or long breaks between releases. It’s not adapting any pre-existing material, either, and how could it be? These stories can only be told through cinema. The series’ best films revel in that fact, at times seeming to stress the limits of the frame, as if there’s some even bigger medium to be invented which could better accommodate them. Since 2011’s gear-shifting Fast Five, the Fast and Furious films have struggled to push their own boundaries, as much emotionally as with their action. With The Fate of the Furious, though, the series loses its footing.

The death of Paul Walker gave The Fate of the Furious predecessor, Furious 7, a newfound emotional and thematic heft. Every frame was shrouded by the inevitability of his departure. Walker’s absence looms over Fate, too, but in a more destabilizing way. This series thrives on its team dynamics. Naturally, the loss of one of its key members presents a challenging issue. The Fate of the Furious attempts to course-correct are so wild that they only exacerbate the problem.

First, as if a metaphor for the whole situation, they have Dom betray the team early on. Replacing him are Furious 7’s Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), now a permanent member of the team, Fast and Furious 6’s main antagonist, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), and nondescript government guy, Eric Reisner (Scott Eastwood). The master hacker, Ramsey, is a fun addition. She brings a new energy and perspective to the cast. I do wish The Fate of the Furious were interested in her beyond as a foil for Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris).

Deckard feels entirely out of place. He was introduced as the killer of one of the series’ most beloved characters. He has no real connection to anyone else on the team, and he doesn’t fill a necessary role since he’s just another big strong brawler. That said, he has great buddy-comedy chemistry with Dwayne Johnson. Reisner is the most blatant attempt to replace Walker. He’s another whitebread ,rule-following good guy who gets seduced by the gang’s outlaw lifestyle. Eastwood is a charisma-less void whose dull obnoxiousness drains the lifeblood from all his scenes. I hope the next installment ditches him.

Dom’s heel-turn combined with this haphazard mishmash of characters robs The Fate of the Furious of the longstanding relationships which have defined the franchise for so long. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is the only member of the group who consistently expresses concern for Dom. The rest of them spend the movie cracking jokes as if nothing was wrong. It feels like a betrayal of the tight-knit bonds we’ve watched develop between these people for over a decade. Even Letty’s angst doesn’t quite land, despite typically solid work from Rodriguez. It would probably be more compelling if she wasn’t just reenacting Dom’s arc from the sixth film beat-for-beat.

Park: Just as significant as the confused character work is The Fate of the Furious choice to change genres. Fast Five revitalized the franchise by turning a series about car racing into a series about car heists, with the addition of some car (and human) superheroics. With The Fate of the Furious, Fast & Furious takes a turn into the realm of espionage, replete with plenty of globe-hopping and double-crossing. Unfortunately, the spy thriller is a poor fit for the franchise. Rather than a more personal battle for Dom’s soul, most of the action has the team fighting to prevent nuclear war. It’s certainly an increase in scope from the previous films, but it lacks the immediacy of the previous films’ more personal stakes.

A lot of these problems are wrapped up in Cipher (Charlize Theron), the film’s main antagonist. A genius hacker and cyber-terrorist, Cipher spends almost the entire film pacing around the same room, glaring at monitors and shouting commands into a headset. To cast Theron and then isolate her away from all the action is a terrible waste. This is Imperator Furiosa we’re talking about. Not having her go toe-to-toe with the heroes is shameful. She’s certainly an intimidating presence, and quite a bit more sadistic than the franchise’s previous baddies, but she never gets an opportunity to flex those action muscles.

The film suffers from this empty space where a villain should be. The opposing force most of the time is Dom, and since we know from the beginning that his betrayal has been coerced, there’s never any tension in those sequences. This worked much better in Fast & Furious 6, with the unpredictability that came with Letty’s brainwashing. The film provides its own metaphor for this problem in the New York sequence, which has Cipher remotely control hundreds of cars at once. The torrent of cars flooding the streets makes for some striking visuals, but all of them are driverless. It’s just a bunch of empty shells.

Drive: The film’s action sequences redeem it quite a bit, though not enough to drag Fate out of the ditch. They are at worst on-par with previous entries, and there’s nothing that goes above and beyond. On the whole, they feel a bit muted compared to the gleeful ludicrousness of Furious 7’s action. The scene in that film in which Dom and Brian blasted out of a skyscraper window and flew into an adjacent skyscraper, only to drive straight through that one and out another window into another skyscraper, perfectly defined the series’ approach to action up to that point: Always go for something grander than you’ve done before, and then go even further than that for good measure. There’s nothing in The Fate of the Furious that suggests this aspirational tone. The action is far from bad, but the stunts are few and far between, and none of them eclipse the best parts of the previous films.

There’s much more non-car combat in this one, too, and fortunately it’s taken a step up. A prison brawl early on showcases the absurd superhuman feats that have become a staple of Dwayne Johnson’s solo scenes. It’s a far cry from The Fate of the Furious many grittier moments. A shootout much later in the film with Statham is one of the best scenes in the entire film, and there’s not a car in sight. I won’t give anything away, but its confident silliness is reminiscent of some of the franchise’s best vehicular action. For the first time, stepping out of the cars feels justified rather than tedious.

I don’t know if that’s really a good thing, though. Much as I enjoyed those scenes, I’d hate to see the series drift away from the aspects that made it iconic. The Fate of the Furious features some troubling warning signs of that outcome. It finds the series at a crossroads, desperately grasping for a new identity. In the process, it loses some of what made its predecessors so great. If there’s one thing you could never accuse a Fast & Furious film of, it’s stagnation. But when a franchise has gone on for this long, there are some things worth keeping intact.

Overall: The Fate of the Furious stumbles in its attempt to reorient the series, just barely managing to avoid running it into the ground.

Grade: C-

Featured Image: Universal Pictures