'The Fate of the Furious' is mostly spinning its wheels

Barely five minutes have elapsed in “The Fate of the Furious” before Michelle Rodriguez mutters, “It’s gonna be a bomb.” She is not talking about the movie (duh), but rather about a 1953 Chevy Fleetline whose hunkajunk engine Vin Diesel has cleverly souped up — though it might be more accurate to say he’s turned it into a dynamite stick on wheels — using little more than his wits, his muscles and the tab of a Coke can. You’ve got to admire that last part: It’s a plot point, a product placement and a well-timed Pepsi dig rolled into one.

It’s no spoiler to report that the Fleetline goes up in flames up after a hilariously overblown street race (it would be a spoiler to report that it doesn’t), shortly before flying through the air and crashing into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Havana. “The Fate of the Furious” is one of the first Hollywood productions to shoot in Cuba since the easing of diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 2014, which means that, for all its fun-in-the-sun frivolity, the movie inevitably reflects something about the political and economic moment that produced it.

It is many other things too: the eighth chapter in an improbably successful 16-year-old blockbuster franchise, a 2-hour, 15-minute earplug commercial, an argument for the law of diminishing returns and the latest proof, as if proof were needed, that diversity sells. Years before #OscarsSoWhite became the depressing industry catchphrase, the “Fast & Furious” movies were the glorious standard-bearer for multiplex multiculturalism, distinguished by an ever-shifting but fully integrated ensemble and a willingness to tap directors of color like John Singleton, Justin Lin and James Wan.

The latest filmmaker to join their ranks is F. Gary Gray, who recently directed “Straight Outta Compton” but whose most salient credit is his terrifically entertaining 2003 remake of “The Italian Job.” He has imported a few key elements from that automotive heist caper, though arguably too little of its sleek, snazzy elegance and too much Charlize Theron (four words I never thought I’d write).

With some clever cross-branding and better writing, we could have ended up with “The Fast and the Furiosa.” Instead we have Cipher (Theron), a seductive cyber-terrorist with blond dreadlocks, a red-bearded henchman (“Game of Thrones” actor Kristofer Hivju), and a drearily familiar code of winner-takes-all nihilism.

Cipher must have some mighty powerful leverage over Diesel’s Dom Toretto, who suddenly decides to help her procure a stash of nuclear weapons that could trigger World War III, abandoning his new bride, Letty (Rodriguez), and their affectionate gang of globe-trotting gearheads in the process. That isn’t at all like Dom, who has made it clear that his favorite “F” word isn’t “fast” or “furious” but “family.” Nor, come to think of it, is it much like Diesel, who has seldom shown the inclination — or, frankly, the talent — to cloak his character’s motives in mystery.

His costars, for their part, are largely content to stay in the safe and familiar lanes plotted out for them in Chris Morgan’s script. Those bickering sidemen Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) spend most of their time competing for the affections of ace hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, another “Game of Thrones” regular). Kurt Russell returns as a covert government operative, this time with Scott Eastwood in tow as his annoying protégé. And hey look, there’s Helen Mirren in a few “hey look, there’s Helen Mirren” scenes.

Naturally, Dwayne Johnson is back as Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs, who reluctantly pulls himself away from coaching his daughter’s soccer team to resume the thrill of the chase. But not even a gratuitously bone-crunching prison-break sequence — pitting him against his old nemesis Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) and allowing for some choice one-liners of the “I will beat your ass like a Cherokee drum” variety — can quite offset the feeling that the thrill is gone.

Ever since Dom and Hobbs went mano a mano in “Fast Five,” Diesel and Johnson have often seemed locked in a private competition of their own, as if to see who can imitate the world’s most expressive tree trunk. The two stars share precious little screen time here, and whether there’s any truth to the rumors of a behind-the-scenes “Furious” feud, that disconnect — the sense that the actors might as well have been digitally inserted alongside each other, for all the chemistry they achieve — spreads through the ensemble like a bad case of rust.

You may well argue that chemistry — and, for that matter, acting — is beside the point when it comes to some of the more outlandishly incoherent set pieces in “The Fate of the Furious,” and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. At one point Cipher turns virtually every car in Manhattan into a self-driving weapon, and then, just for kicks, sends about 50 of them careening out of an upper-story parking structure, in what may be the cinema’s first scene of vehicular mass suicide.

And even that feels like a warm-up act — or perhaps a cool-down act — for the climactic showdown in freezing-cold Russia (actually played by Iceland), where a parade of speeding cars and exploding trucks are upstaged by a wayward submarine. No spluttering Vladimir Putin reaction shots are in store, alas, though given the movie’s level of anything-goes insanity (or is it indifference?), they would hardly have felt out of place.

All this testifies, I suppose, to the ongoing durability of a franchise that started out in 2001 as little more than hot rods and cheap thrills, before unexpectedly hitting its creative and commercial stride a few movies later. But after the ultra-stylish detour of “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” the unfiltered action-movie exhilaration of “Fast Five” and the emotional high of “Furious 7,” with its moving elegy for the late Paul Walker, the series seems to have at last entered its frustrating, decadent, spinning-its-wheels phase.

The theme of “The Fate of the Furious” — not to be missed among all the hot babes, fast cars, private planes and big bangs — is betrayal, and not just because Dom suddenly goes rogue. The sudden recasting of murderous bad guy Deckard as a good guy may be a necessary expedient from a narrative point of view, and it does yield a pretty amusing homage to John Woo’s classic “Hard Boiled.”

But it is also likely to induce whiplash, and not the good kind, for those fans who have invested something of themselves in this series, enjoying its utter lack of pretension while taking its emotional core seriously. “The Fate of the Furious” isn’t going to bomb, to be sure. But it may be the first movie to see all those hard-earned sentiments about family loyalty blow up in its face.

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‘The Fate of the Furious’

Rating: PG-13, for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content and language

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Playing: In general release

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justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang

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