(CNN) — Twenty-two years of “The Fast & the Furious” movies have created enough characters and history for cameos and callbacks aplenty in “Fast X.” Yet for all its high-octane action this tenth film is really just revving its engine for more sequels to come, kicking off a multi-part story that offers an appropriately bloated way to bring this very loud enterprise to a (no doubt temporary) finish.
Despite the familiar faces either extensively featured or who just drive by, the defining element of the latest movie resides in its new villain, Dante, played with wild, over-the-top gusto by Jason Momoa. Motivated by a thirst for revenge explained during the opening sequence, Momoa’s characterization owes a debt to the Joker (perhaps wanting to evoke Nicholson or Ledger, but more Cesar Romero), unleashing a hammy tidal wave that’s generally more cringy than amusing.
That unguided missile nevertheless creates a major threat to Dom (Vin Diesel) and his extended family, beginning with a massive chase that takes place in Rome. The story later shifts to Rio de Janeiro, where they actually squeeze in a race, which seems almost quaint given the ridiculous directions in which “Fast” has gravitated.
Dante’s scheme puts Dom and company on the run from the authorities, with sympathy from one government agent (Brie Larson, due soon in the “Captain Marvel” sequel) while another (“Reacher’s” Alan Ritchson) is hot on their tail.
At this point, the “Fast” movies have reached a can-you-top-this level of action that can either be embraced for its muscular silliness or – more often in this latest incarnation – giggled at for its sheer absurdity.
French director Louis Letterier (whose credits include the “Transporter” films as well as “The Incredible Hulk”) approaches it with complete conviction, including those sentimental lectures about family and commitment Diesel insists on delivering, with classy scene partners like Helen Mirren and Rita Moreno.
Although there’s something to be said for trying to craft a truly epic story, even with its abundant roster of characters to accommodate the escapist nature of the “Fast” franchise makes the attempt to do a “Star Wars”-like serialization feel like a bridge too far. Still, it’s a popular gimmick among the cool kids this summer, with the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie billed as “Part One.”
The sheer number of “Fast” cast members who now possess superhero credentials reflects a film industry drift this century mirrored by the evolving nature of these movies, whose exponentially more elaborate set pieces and stunts frankly tend to blur together.
The idea that “Fast X” will seamlessly bleed into “Fast XI” and potentially “Fast XII” (sticking with the Roman-numeral conceit) appears to represent narrative ambition, but it’s really not; rather, that framework is simply a means of paving the way for another five years or so of this extraordinarily lucrative global franchise.
The fact the last entry, “F9,” provided theaters with a welcome shot of box-office adrenaline indicates there’s still ample gas left in that tank, commercially speaking. It’s creatively where “Fast X” feels as if it’s running on fumes.
“Fast X” premiered May 19 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.