Fast & Furious 8 (12A) ★★★★☆

IT’S quite astonishing that what started out 16 years ago as essentially a Point Break knock-off with added street racing has spawned one of the most successful action franchises around.

The eighth in the series all about fast cars, beautiful women, exotic locales and the ever-present theme of family continues to slam the franchise into the most ridiculous gear it can muster. Most importantly it’s damn entertaining in the process.

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We pick things up sometime after the retirement send-off of Brian (the late Paul Walker), with Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) on their honeymoon in Havana. Their idealistic getaway is interrupted, however, when a mysterious woman (Charlize Theron) approaches Dom and blackmails him with an unseen threat into betraying his team and going rogue to work for her.

Meanwhile, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) recruits the team to recover a stolen EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) device that could shut down the power in any city and effectively turn it into a war zone. This brings the team to Berlin and the setting for Dom’s betrayal to a disbelieving team.

While it may be dialling things down to a simpler plot level – hero we know goes rogue, team have to stop him helping the big bad guy – it certainly never rests with the handbrake on. Remember that scene in Fast & Furious 7, where the team parachute their cars out of an airplane on to a mountain road? This sequel hits that same height of “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” CGI and stunt-led action.

Under the direction of F Gary Gray (Friday, Straight Outta Compton) who takes over from James Wan, it gives us more absurdly expensive cars driving speeds that would give careful drivers a heart attack, playful dialogue between friends and foes alike – “I will beat your ass like a Cherokee drum!” threatens The Rock’s muscled cop Hobbs to Jason Statham’s immensely entertaining cockney ex-soldier Deckard Shaw, the film’s undeniable MVP – and more entertainingly preposterous set-pieces in a single film than most other franchises would have in their entire run.

Highlights include an elaborate prison brawl and escape sequence that allows the series to once again flex its brutal hand-to-hand combat muscles acquired in Fast Five when the franchise finally became the self-aware celebration of ridiculousness it was always meant to be, while a crazy set-piece in New York City gives fast and furious new meaning to the term self-driving cars.

It doesn’t quite have that special quality of the previous film, which packed an emotional punch when it dealt very touchingly with the unexpected death of franchise stalwart Paul Walker, who died in an unrelated car crash half way through filming.

But it’s a strength in itself that the franchise finds a way to move on from that and, eight films in, can find ways to still make a very entertaining piece of big-screen escapism that plays to the wants and needs of an audience that has helped it become a billion-dollar franchise.

It may be insanely over-the-top, it may be silly and it may veer off the road into cheesiness as often as the characters change cars, particularly when it deals with the franchise’s primary theme of family above all else.

But it’s the kind of big, dumb, outlandish blockbuster that knows it’s all those things and gives us them in mightily entertaining fashion.