Stay on target MovieBob Reviews: ‘Shadow’MovieBob Reviews: ‘The Curse of La Llorona’ At this point, the Fast & Furious franchise represents something like the longest ironic joke ever told to global movie audiences. At some point in the white noise between sequels, a series initially dedicated to showing off expensively-outfitted cars, the almost determinedly anti-charismatic presence of Vin Diesel (who we at one point thought was going to be a much bigger star) and pretty much nothing else morphed into an over-the-top parody of itself that endures by impressively resisting all opportunities to acknowledge that is a parody – one that is now increasingly centered on a super-charismatic actor who’s turning out to be a much bigger star than anyone could’ve anticipated in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.Yet the franchise continues, powered by an innate sense of audience connectivity that understands better than any modern action film outside of maybe the first Avengers movie that audiences will forgive almost any lapse in narrative logic so long as the leap of faith lands somewhere entertaining. When exactly did a crew of street-racing reprobates and (literal) highway-robbers transform fully into a team of justice-seeking mercenaries for hire? What year did Tokyo Drift take place in, again? Why does Hobbs continue to use Toretto’s team even for missions that are not explicitly car-related until they’ve shown up? Does anyone remember that the first movie just wasn’t very good? Don’t ask those questions – you’ll spoil everyone’s good time.And it is still a good time – just maybe not a great time. Don’t get me wrong, the car stunts and the action beats are as good as they’ve ever been (new director F. Gary Gray being an old pro at this sort of thing) and by now the returning cast has all settled nicely into what passes for characterization in this series for their individual roles. I.e. “keep a straight face, work your specific routine, occasionally indicate to the audience that you also have no idea what purpose Tyrese’s character is actually meant to serve.” And the new setup that finds Toretto seemingly betraying his comrades at the behest of Charlize Theron’s mysterious new supervillain Cipher is, at least initially, a nice break from the routine.The letdown is that for the first time in a while the sense of the franchise genuinely going above and beyond expectations isn’t quite there. It’s still getting bigger and more preposterous, but almost mechanically so – the cool new gag of the team fighting against a whole city’s worth of remote-controlled “zombie” cars is awesome but only really gets busted out for one scene, the implications of Cipher having some kind of “deep lore” connection to the series turns out to just be a standard retcon making her the vague mastermind behind the last two movies’ bad guys and Toretto’s much-hyped bad guy turn lacks the expected intrigue and gravity: Iron Man turning against Captain America this is not.Some of the problems are structural. It’s made explicit from the start that Dom is being manipulated against his will (longtime fans of the franchise will guess what Cipher “has on him” almost immediately, though it’s treated like a shocking reveal). And Dom has a scheme of his own for turning the tables is teed-up for the audience far too early. It’s not uninteresting, and in the best moments, it even serves as a reminder that Diesel’s extremely limited range has always been suited to taciturn moral ambiguity than hero roles. But it ends up feeling like what it increasingly seems to have been all along: A way to keep Vin Diesel at the nominal forefront of the storyline without having to spend as much time working with the rest of the ensemble.And that’s probably the most unfortunate aspect keeping The Fate of The Furious from rising to the occasion: As many had feared, you can really feel the absence of the late Paul Walker in the group dynamic, and it doesn’t feel like the franchise has worked out a new “glue” to hold all the other personalities together as a unit. That becomes something that matters when you’ve got to sell increasingly absurd status-quo evolutions like Jason Statham’s credulity-straining elevation to the “good guy” side, a face-turn that only remotely makes a lick of sense if you assume that the franchise is now running on Dragon Ball Z logic i.e. the arrival of a “worse” villain automatically gets the last nemesis invited to the cookout. Fortunately, Statham is good enough at this kind of role to easily get himself over with the audience by knocking a solo action sequence out of the park in Act 3 (you’ll know it when you see it.)Fate of The Furious not a “bad” movie by any stretch. But the whole hook of this franchise for a long time now has been to wind up being so much better than you’d imagine a bunch of pyrotechnic nonsense about B-list actors fighting terrorism with street-racing would be, and this one is… well, “only” about as good as you could reasonably expect. It’s fine, but it doesn’t really achieve the signature Fast & Furious transcendence even as it ramps up the ridiculous stunts, admirably diverse camaraderie and Diesel’s extraterrestrial pronunciation of the word “fambly.” And it signals a worrying sense that the series may have peaked with two more installments left to go.