I wouldn't have said that the late Paul Walker was in the top five, or hell, in the top 20 reasons that the Fast and the Furious films worked, but The Fate of the Furious - No. 8 in a franchise that has never once settled on a routine naming schema, and God bless it - has me wondering. There's no absolutely clear reason why this should be so much weaker than 2015's Furious 7, and yet it most certainly is, for all sorts of fiddly little reasons that we'll get into. But somehow, weirdly, the biggest one is that it's got no heart. Aye, of course we can all have a good time mocking Vin Diesel's lumbering intonations of "family", repeated like a mantra promising domesticated emotional resonance in a franchise about if James Bond was a street racer. But the films mean it, you know - as goofy and overbaked and dumb as it all is, you can tell that the actors believe it, the writers believe it, the directors believe it, and we believe it too, goddammit.

Take away Paul Walker, it turns out, and you take away family. Though F8 does itself absolutely no favors by needlessly compounding that loss with a plot that strips away the family motif even more (actually, it occurs to me only in this moment, that perhaps the film's depiction of its family unit broken and in disarray is a silent nod to the sense of lack the filmmakers feel in Walker's absence - that might be giving it much too much credit). It's a heartless movie, and more to the point, it's a movie largely without a center: the franchise has gathered together so many characters by this point (including the second time in the series that one film's primary antagonist redeemed into a reluctant hero in the very next sequel - Jason Statham has gone from bloody-minded British psychopath in the last film to making goofy faces at a baby here) that giving all of the something to do necessarily demands that the film consist of a whole punch of detached plot threads whipping around each other. It is a film that feels made out of modules of plot. But that would even be okay if the modules felt like they were all facing in the same direction, and while that kind of happens in F8, it happens only with much visible strain.

The film's central gimmick - and oh yes, we're definitely in the "gimmick" stage of the franchise at this point, not that gimmickry is sinful for a series whose last movie was the "cars parachuting out of an airplane" one - is that soulful meatpile Dom Toretto (Diesel) has been turned against his ad hoc family of colorful misfits, hackers, car enthusiasts, and whathaveyou, and is now using his inestimable skills is at plotting heists and driving cars to commit terrorist crimes. This is due to the machinations of a merciless woman who looks like the Snow Queen got dreadlocks, the world's greatest international superhacker known only as Cipher (Charlize Theron). That I felt compelled to write the word "hacker" twice in a two-sentence summary of the movie speaks to one of F8's more noticeable quirks, which is that it feels in many ways like a '90s movie that got lost on the way to theaters and only just tripped and stumbled into the light of day. Which is fine, I guess, though it's a pity the film only borrowed the dumb parts of '90s action (hackers with elite skillz) and left the good parts (practical effects, something this franchise used to have in abundance).

Anyway, Dom's a bad guy, except we know that he's not, because we saw Cipher show him a photo on her phone - we don't, for a while, know what he saw, and when we do find out, it feels like a bit of a fudge that it would drive him to throw over all his friends and allies and new wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). And this strikes me as the film's single biggest unforced error: it's not like we'd ever believe for an actual fraction of a second that Dom has done a heel turn, so the film's elaborate plot of cutting off our access to his knowledge for most of the first half feels like a trick that's not working. The result is a film without a protagonist: for all the colorful characters surrounding him, and for all that Dwayne Johnson's Luke Hobbs has been a more appealing figure since the instant he first appeared in Fast Five, the Fast movies in their later, ensemble period have always orbited around Diesel. Turning him into a shadowy mystery figure, certainly this many movies in, simply doesn't work.

This leaves with a whole mess of story to unspool: I never quite figured how many segregated plot strands F8 is playing with, but it's not fewer than three. They're not exactly hard to keep track of, though with so many balls in the air, screenwriter Chris Morgan and director F. Gary Gray (a newcomer to the franchise, and not a beneficial one) never get around to making any individual conflict or plot point or anything else matter. I don't know and really don't actually care what the stakes are most of the time - "terrorist wants to steal a nuke" was literally being overdone half-a-century ago, and the more intimate character-driven stakes are indifferently applied. Statham and Johnson squaring off against each other in the most openly flirtatious scenes of muscle men threatening to kill each other, that part I was entirely onboard with (Statham is, apparently, the solitary cast member who actually enjoyed his time on set, based on the onscreen evidence). Otherwise it's a whole bunch of technobabble keeping us locked in offices and away from fast cars, or Theron's thoroughly dispiriting stab at playing a sociopathic genius, one that the actor has described in interviews as consisting of basically nothing but scowling in underlit interiors.

And for all that, I do really think that I'd have forgiven The Fate of the Furious all of its sins - or at least, called attention to them much more quietly - if it had that sparkle that the last couple of Fasts did in their action sequences. The endless runway from Fast & Furious 6, the skyscraper jumping in Furious 7; these are of course as dumb as all hell, applying the physics and logic of a Looney Tunes cartoon to a vaguely realistic action movie, but they are giddy cinematic bliss. At least initially, it seems that F8 might be ready to join them: the film's opening gambit is a flagrantly impossible street race in Havana (this is the first American narrative film to shoot in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, and it uses that privilege well: the culture and space of the city are captured as both exotic but also real and street-level and lived-in), with a car bursting into flames from the sheer exertion of speed, and I was already to settle in for something spectacular after that. Sadly, it never comes; one Statham fight scene with a baby in tow, and a massive chase across the Siberian ice are the only action sequences even a little bit worth mentioning, and the latter is choppy, overlong, and suffers from unclear staging of some of its more theoretically impressive stunts.

The result is the first outright boring Fast movie in a good long while, and the break of a wave that started to rise back in 2011, when the franchise's fifth film unexpectedly turned out to be its best. I do not despair for the series. Wherever the inevitable ninth film happens to set itself (I'm hoping for outer space, sooner rather than later), and under whatever maniacally weird title they whip up for it, I'll be there. Besides, for a franchise that already once revived itself from punishingly dull, bad films to stall out in the eighth entry in 16 years can be no disappointment for any reasonable person. I suppose I am thus being unreasonable to say that this was a pretty big letdown, no two ways about it.