By Leah Greenblatt
April 09, 2017 at 03:23 PM EDT
Universal Pictures

Franchise, franchise, at the mall, who is the Furious-est of them all? Sixteen years, eight installments, and 4 billion-plus dollars in, the series that began as a lean little bullet of a B-movie has become a delirious, seemingly undefeatable box-office beast. And with great horsepower comes great responsibility: The need not just for speed, but for heavy-metal set pieces that crunch and crash and soar beyond shock and awe; cinematic jumper cables applied directly to the cerebral cortex (and sometimes, it feels like, the kidneys too).

No one is here to risk their organs, of course, for a cohesive storyline: Screenwriter Chris Morgan, now on his sixth Furious outing, swats away plot logistics and the laws of physics like the pesky mosquitoes they are, and director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) has no intention of slowing his roll. But the movies are nothing if not consistent in their themes of loyalty and brotherhood and blowing stuff up—and in retaining the core crew, including Vin Diesel, Michele Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, and towering late-game additions Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. (Paul Walker, who died before production on the last film was completed, is alluded to, and still lives offscreen).

Kurt Russell reprises his role as government operative Mr. Nobody, now with straight-man sidekick Scott Eastwood, and Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju drops in as a menacing, Viking-bearded henchman. But it’s both surprising and gratifying that the most high-profile new additions to this testosterone piñata are Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren, two women who have no intention of playing the second sex. (That the franchise can add a pair of Best Actress Oscar winners as easily as a street racer hooks a nitrous tank to his Camaro feels like just one more testament to its growing superpowers).

Mirren’s appearance is mostly a souped-up cameo, but Theron gets to sink in her teeth as Cipher, a slippery, key-coding sociopath who, with her tailored blazers and long blonde dreadlocks, looks like a tech CEO who just got back from Burning Man, and speaks in the bwah-ha-ha! aphorisms of a classic Bond villain. It’s her vaguely Dr. Evil-ish goals—there’s something about nuclear warheads and controlling the international power grid—that pull Diesel’s outlaw ringleader Dominic Toretto to the dark side, forcing him to betray everything he loves in order to protect the one thing he didn’t know he had to. (No spoilers.)

As always, these shenanigans require multiple passport stamps—sun-baked Havana, New York City, a snow-blasted Russia tundra—obtusely complicated heist plans, and next-level feats of machinery. At their balletic best, the script’s auto-erotic high jinks are conducted with all the tender, crushing care of a V8 symphony. But the movie Tokyo-drifts into tedium in its more chaotic, casually gruesome chase scenes, and the “serious” dialogue is so consistently clunky it feels like it’s been carved from woodblocks with a dull butterknife.

Thankfully, it’s frequently also much funnier and lighter on its feet than previous outings, and a lot of that credit goes to Statham and Johnson, whose love-hate bromance feels like the real core of the movie: Statham revels in his Cockney-you-wish-you’d-never-messed-with shtick, and Johnson is, as always, the human Humvee with a heart of gold: snapping handcuffs in half like breadsticks, bench-pressing cinder blocks for kicks, and lifting opponents by the scruff of the neck as if they were wayward kittens. (He’s also super committed to his daughter’s soccer team.)

It wouldn’t be a Furious climax if there weren’t inordinately expensive moving objects to destroy (in this case, a military submarine), a remarkably one-sided barrage of high-grade weaponry (bad guys, dead; good guys, ricochet!), and an explosive hail-Mary finale so sublimely ridiculous it defies both good sense and gravity. (It helps, perhaps, that several main players have no hair to singe.) The movie ends with more than one literal bang, but the series’ fate is hardly sealed; it’s merely to be continued: There are two more sequels due by 2021. B