Movie's thrills slowed by its self-seriousness

Raise your hand if you thought the movie about then-trendy, illegal street racing from 2001 would become a massively successful international franchise. This is, I guess, why you and I are not Hollywood executives.

The untimely and, yes, tragic death of one of the franchise's founding stars, Paul Walker, did not derail the series in the least. Nay, “Furious 7” was one of the fastest (and most furious!) movies ever to reach $1 billion in the international box office. So, this week, the franchise races on.

Where do you go from here? What hasn't been done? “The Fate of the Furious” tries very hard to answer that question. It boasts the kind of over-the-top thrills and stunts that have become the reason people flock to these movies. And it also buckles under its self-serious weight at times.

When we last left series hero Dom (Vin Diesel), he had driven off into the sunset with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to Cuba, seemingly leaving the fast lane behind to live happily ever after.

But soon a mysterious woman (Charlize Theron) tracks him down and recruits him into the world of international terrorism.

Elsewhere, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is also seemingly retired from his law enforcement life, but the mysterious heel turn by Dom draws him back into the game, and the old gang gets back together again.

Director F. Gary Gray is a great choice to take the helm here, coming off his outstanding N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and having made a damn fine car-chase movie in “The Italian Job.” The series continues to be at its best when it tests the limits of ridiculousness — a live-action cartoon that is just too fun to take seriously.

Those thrills are here, particularly in an epic chase scene that makes “Grand Theft Auto” feel like a documentary. The scene is nearly bested by a finale that's even more over-the-top. Suspension of disbelief is the name of the game here.

But that's offset a bit by the rest of the busy plot — a cross-stitch of old storylines coming back and some new faces that would have been better with some streamlining.

The predicament of Diesel's character means he doesn't get to have much fun. Theron may deserve another Oscar for delivering some of her baddie's lines with a straight face. The comic relief of supporting faves, including Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, is much-needed.

It runs a little long, but the “Fast” faithful won't care. I, on the other hand, had more fun a couple of laps back with this series, but I'm sure it won't run out of gas here.