Anyone can be a bad guy, but too few are actually good at it. That’s why Vulture is instituting a Villain Performance Review, in which we’ll regularly evaluate the evil schemes perpetrated by big-screen baddies and ask the crucial question, “Did that plan make any sense?” First up, we’re tackling Charlize Theron’s Cipher in Fate of the Furious.
The Fast and Furious series is one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers, but it still felt like a major coup when the series landed Charlize Theron to play the villainous hacker mastermind Cipher in the franchise’s eighth installment. An Oscar-winning actress who starred in one the best action movies of all time, Theron would surely bring some spark to a series that tends to settle for just-adequate antagonists … right?
Well, yes and no. Isolated from every cast member but Vin Diesel and left out of all of the film’s action set pieces, Theron exudes a real “I block-shot this in five days” vibe, looming over laptops, supervising a hangdog crew, and purring most of her lines into a headset like an uncaffeinated morning-news producer. She never takes the wheel or goes toe-to-toe in a fight with Michelle Rodriguez’s equally formidable Letty; instead, Cipher just hangs out on her admittedly well-furnished spy plane, rocks questionable dreads, and ASMR-chats with Diesel’s Dom about choice theory.
All that might be forgivable if Cipher had a good plan in place, but did she? First, we’ll evaluate her motives, then we’ll tackle her methods. As you might expect, there will be spoilers.
For most of Fate of the Furious, it’s not clear why Cipher is doing what she’s doing. We first meet her in Cuba, where she coaxes Dom to betray his crew by showing him something mysterious on her phone. His participation secured, Cipher uses Dom to steal an electronics-jamming doodad and an advanced aerial spy system, both of which were glimpsed as MacGuffin devices in the previous two Fast and Furious films. Cipher then takes her evil troupe to New York City, where Dom is ordered to steal a briefcase full of Russian launch codes, before the group finally arrives in Russia to commandeer a submarine full of nuclear (or, as co-star Scott Eastwood pronounces with perfect GWB diction, “nucular”) weapons.
On the way over, Cipher finally makes her intentions clear, albeit in the most confusing way possible. What she’s after, she tells Dom, is “accountability.” If she manages to get her hands on those nukes, she can fire one off and “put the superpowers of the world on notice.”
Okay, but like … then what? Having struck fear into the hearts of world leaders, does Cipher plan to extort them of cash like a James Bond villain, or is this her convoluted way of stopping world war by threatening to strike against any nation that gets out of line? It’s never quite spelled out beyond Cipher’s ambiguous statement, “I’m the crocodile at the watering hole,” though I think that after she’s terrorized New York City by zombie-controlling thousands of its cars during the film’s mid-movie set piece, she’s amply put the world on notice even without any nuclear capabilities to her name. But hey, maybe Cipher’s just an overachiever. She wants it all!
Seemingly sensing that this vague motive isn’t quite substantial enough, the movie supplies another m.o. for Cipher to do her dirty work, this one requiring quite a bit of retcon: Secretly, she was behind the evil plots in both Fast & Furious 6 and Furious 7, pulling strings offscreen to manipulate previous baddies Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) and his brother Deckard (Jason Statham) to her will. The most recent James Bond film, Spectre, tried to pull the same stunt with Christoph Waltz’s villain, proposing that he was the mastermind behind the unconnected bad guys in Daniel Craig’s three other movies. It was kind of a stretch there, too.
Her plots foiled each time by Dom and his crew of fast-driving lunkheads, Cipher finally realizes that if you can’t beat ’em, force ’em into joining you. But is she getting revenge on Dom by pulling him into her evil orbit, or does she really want him (in more ways than one)? He asks her, but she demurs so the movie doesn’t actually have to figure it out.
So what’s the thing on Cipher’s phone that convinces Dom to join the dark side? Though we never see it, plot points supplied later would lead us to believe it’s a photo of Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky), a former fling of Dom’s that Cipher has kidnapped along with her secret baby, whom Dom never even knew he fathered. How Dom intuits all this from a photo and some very ambiguous dialogue from Cipher is truly impressive. Maybe it was a captioned series on her Instagram Story?
As a twist, at least that supplies some solid motivation for the family-driven Dom to bend to Cipher’s will, though it’s never quite clear why he won’t come clean to his allies about the leverage Cipher has over him. I understand that it’ll be a hard conversation with Letty to spring this surprise kid on her, but at least he has an ironclad “I only slept with Elena when I thought you were dead” excuse to use. And would the baby-curious Letty really be more upset if Dom reveals an adorable step-kid than she would if Dom abandons her, betrays all their friends, and starts committing treasonous crimes? That path feels like a little more of a deal-breaker to me.
Though she manages to recruit Dom to do her bidding, in true supervillain tradition, Cipher’s plan still involves its fair share of needlessly convoluted tangents. First, she fakes car trouble so Dom will stop and fall into her highly specific meet-cute trap, as though that initial 30 seconds of confused friendliness is the priority instead of simply striding up to Dom, thrusting her iPhone in his face, and cooing, “Guess what?” Later, Cipher remotely hacks into every single thing in New York so that Dom can steal the Russian nuclear briefcase but after Dom’s old crew tries to stop him, she’s suddenly hands-off, telling Dom to “take care of it” himself. Lady, he’s holding the nuclear briefcase you just leveled half of Manhattan to obtain! Is this really the right time to take an extended bathroom break instead of ramming a remote-controlled car into Tyrese?
You’ve got to give Cipher evil props for eventually killing Elena to manipulate Dom to fall in line, but when given ample opportunity to kill or kidnap any other member of Dom’s crew for further leverage — including the man’s damn wife, Letty — Cipher never takes the bait. She storms Kurt Russell’s base and uses a sense-blasting tech device to incapacitate all the good guys, but once she’s got Letty on the ground, does she nab her? No, she just makes out with Letty’s husband in front of her, a move that’s more mean than actually evil. It isn’t until the very end of the movie that Theron is forced to deliver the Scooby-Doo line, “I should have taken care of this a long time ago,” and authorizes the murder of those pesky kids who have literally been breaking up her schemes for three movies now. Just admit that you’re keeping Michelle Rodriguez alive so you can fight her in Fast Nine! Who would blame you for it?
True to her name, Cipher turns out to be a blank slate that even Charlize Theron can’t fill in. There’s room for improvement here — Cipher survives for a sequel, and eventually abandons the damn plane that hogged most of her screen time in Fate — but it’ll require a firmer hand on the wheel.