★★

The Fate of the Furious is a title that suggests the end of an era; it indicates that this film could possibly be the swan song to the Fast and the Furious, the high-octane, vehicular-carnage-based franchise that has been delivering over-the-top, noisy action to the masses since 2001. This is obviously not the case, as Fate of the Furious introduces a new threat for its morally ambiguous drag racers to tackle while laying the groundwork for the series’ future installments.

The film opens with Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) honeymooning with longtime love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in paradisiac Havana. Things take a turn for the worse when Dom stops to help a woman by the side of the road who’s no innocent bystander—she’s a cyberterrorist known as Cipher (a blonde-dreadlocked Charlize Theron), and she wants to recruit Dom for a mission that will cause him to betray his family and ultimately jeopardize the safety of the entire world.

It’s not just another day at the office for the Fast and the Furious crew—Cipher’s hold over Dom is absolute (and a bit too convenient), and they soon find themselves holding the proverbial bag after Dom sabotages a mission of theirs in Berlin. In an unsurprising plot development, it’s up to the team—Letty, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), plus some help from Cockney bad guy Deckard (Jason Statham) from the previous two flicks—to assist government suit Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) in taking down Dom and stopping Cipher’s plan.

The plot holes are as deep as the cars are fast (would Dom seriously risk his team’s lives, and, oh yeah, the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, just because of Cipher’s orders?), and at a fidget-inducing 136 minutes, this movie is at least 46 minutes longer than any action flick lacking in cerebral content should be. Fate does deliver the sort of powerful set pieces that folks have come to enjoy, and the special effects get quite imaginative—special shout-out to a scene in which Cipher hacks every car in New York City and remotely drives them out of a tall parking garage to “make it rain,” and bonus points for a wild, pyrotechnic chase involving a submarine atop frozen water. It even gets genuinely funny at times, with Marvel-esque meta jokes and an entertaining litany of cameos from both previously established characters and new additions.

The best—and most surprising—part of the film is undoubtedly Cipher, an intriguing and complex female villain who’s perfectly played by Theron in full Evil Queen mode. Hats off to screenwriter Chris Morgan for delivering such an interesting character in an otherwise unambitious vehicle; it almost makes up for the movie’s shaky story lines, including its lazy and sloppy decision to use the disposal of a female character as a plot device. Should the franchise continue, we can only hope there will be more Cipher and shorter runtimes. Better yet, maybe Cipher should just get her own stand-alone film.