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'F9':  Preposterous as always, but loads of fun

(from left) Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Dom (Vin

(from left) Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Dom (Vin Diesel) in "F9." Credit: Universal Pictures/Giles Keyte

PLOT A street-car racer turned intelligence operative faces an unexpected villain: His brother.

CAST Vin Diesel, John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron

RATED PG-13 (action-violence, language)

LENGTH 2:25

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Preposterous even by “Fast & Furious” standards, but look no further for brainless summer fun.

Not long after Daniel Craig made his brooding debut as James Bond in 2006’s "Casino Royale," Vin Diesel’s car-chase franchise, "Fast & Furious," hung a U-ie. The movies left behind their B-grade storylines (drug lords, yawn) and instead drove straight into the fun zone that 007 once occupied. With each new movie, the stunts got wilder, the plots crazier. Remember when James Bond went to space in "Moonraker?" Wait ‘til you see "F9."

In case you’re not up to speed: Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his gang of illegal street-car racers are now, somehow, highly skilled paramilitary operatives. "F9" opens with Toretto living the simple life, working on cars and chugging Coronas like a man should, when he gets a distress call from intelligence chief Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). It seems someone is trying to steal Project Ares, a software virus that can control the world’s weapons systems.

That someone turns out to be Dom’s estranged brother, Jakob. It’s a rare villain role for John Cena, the former wrestler turned Hollywood cuddle-bug ("Daddy’s Home 2," "Dolittle"). Cena plays Jakob a bit like Speed Racer’s estranged brother, Rex – dark and mysterious, but a bit of a stiff. Cena and Diesel look great together, though, all bulging biceps and jutting jaws, and director Justin Lin (a series veteran whose other titles include the pivotal "Fast Five"), repeatedly pairs them off in mirror-image showdowns a la John Woo.

All this breezy fun gets a splash of icy eroticism from Charlize Theron, who returns as the amoral hacker Cypher. (Only Theron could make a pudding-bowl haircut look smart and sexy). But it must be said: "F9" has finally crossed the concrete median of credibility. It’s one thing to flip an armored truck half-a-block long up in the air, but quite another for speeding cars to catch falling humans on their hoods like lacrosse players netting a ball. Even Roger Moore's Bond might have arched an eyebrow at this stuff.

Nevertheless, the series’ strength lies, as always, in its diverse casting and its class consciousness. "F9" is another chance to see people of color break into the typically white global-espionage genre. Ramsey, the tech-geek, is played not by a bespectacled white guy but by the Caribbean-English actress Nathalie Emmanuel; the bickering buddies Roman and Tej are played by Tyrese Gibson and the rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges; the rest of the crew ranges from Asian to Latino to "ambiguous" (Diesel’s stated ethnicity). What’s more, our heroes are not Jason Bourne-style elites but rough-edged urban types. And unlike, say, the loutish Eggsy of the "Kingsman" series, who learns good manners along with deadly skills, these heroes keep their edge; their street-smarts are their strengths.

Even at 20 years old, the "Fast & Furious" franchise shows no signs of stopping. And why should it? Like a sports-car swinging across a canyon from a steel cable wrapped around one wheel, "F9" is unabashedly preposterous and undeniably entertaining.

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