Is it my imagination, or do most of the Fast & Furious movies spend about a third of their running times explaining or rewriting the events of previous installments? I haven’t even started reviewing the latest chapter, F9, and I’m already digressing. Kind of like the mafia, once you’re in a F&F film, you’re in the franchise for life. By this many films into it, that leads to some exceedingly crowded casts and a screenplay that had to find ways to justify all of the cameos, new characters, and a small army of returning characters. This time around, the series that has built its reputation on its makeshift “family” of thieves, spy and drivers has an actual family member as its core villain. Jakob Toretto (John Cena), estranged brother of Vin Diesel’s Dominic, is hellbent on stealing technology that can…do something bad and make it possible to destroy the world, or something like that.
There’s practically an entire film’s worth of flashbacks to Dom and Jakob’s teenage years (where they are played by Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole, respectively, except I think they are dubbed by Diesel and Cena, which is odd) and their relationship with their race car-driving father Jack (J.D. Pardo), who died in a fiery wreck under mysterious circumstances that tore the brothers apart. What that has to do with their modern-day battle I’m still not sure, but it seems related to Jakob’s petty desire not to stand in his big brother’s shadow any longer, because that’s definitely worth blowing up the world for.
Among the good things about F9 is the return of director Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond), who took a break from parts 7 (which James Wan helmed) and 8 (F. Gary Gray), after knocking out chapters 3-6 in rapid succession. As if to mark the occasion, Lin also resurrects the character of Han (Sung Kang), who supposedly died in Tokyo Drift (Part 3), and returns to weirdly little fanfare, although I’m sure everyone is very happy to see him. We also get brief glimpses of Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, whom everyone seems to have worked for at one point or another, and Helen Mirren’s Queenie (mother to Jason Statham’s Shaw, who does not appear in the cast list) in a ridiculous sequence in London with Diesel, who needs her help finding his brother. Also drifting in are Lucas Black’s Sean and Shad Moss (aka Lil’ Bow Wow) as Twinkie, both from Tokyo Drift and now working on jet-powered cars that go really fast and almost always blow up while doing so.
The biggest comeback (even though she really wasn’t gone that long) is that of Dominic’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), who wants in on the action when she finds out that their long-lost brother is causing a great deal of the mayhem. I won’t lie, it’s weird that she’s supposed to still be married to the late Paul Walker’s character Brian, who I guess decided to sit this one out to take care of their kids. There’s a really unfortunate ending moment when you almost believe the filmmakers are going to bring Brian back, and it just feels cheap and unnecessary.
The villain pulling the strings here is a guy named Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), who is holding Cypher (Charlize Theron’s bad guy from the last movie) captive, for reasons I’m never completely clear on—because the rest of the movie makes perfect sense. But eventually, she takes control of things, and you can actually feel the quality of the film improve when she does. Throw in the usual supporting players like Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), and relative newbie Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and you have yourself about 17,000 players, all lobbing one-liners and vying for screen time by yelling and/or overacting, and you have yourself a fully realized Fast & Furious movie.
I’ve always felt that the character Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) was the emotional glue that held these movies together, even when their inclination was to blow themselves apart, but with this prolonged backstory interspersed throughout F9, even she is reduced to a largely silent character who exchanges knowing glances with Dominic, to let us know that they’re in on whatever earth-shattering moment we are beholding—and there are quite a few. But let’s be honest: people don’t flood theaters for Fast & Furious movies because of the character development.
F9 has loads of car-based action sequences, although it feels like slightly less than your usual F&F movie. And aside from one absolutely ridiculous sequence involving the aforementioned jet-boosted vehicles, most of the stunt work/special effects-created moments seem to be lacking a certain creative spark. Admittedly, the use of high-powered magnets during action scenes added a great deal of spectacle to the proceedings, but even that loses its novelty after it gets used a couple dozen times. Is it possible screenwriters Lin and Daniel Casey (Kin) simply ran out of ideas and leaned into the belief that the star power and surprise appearances (none of which are that surprising) should be the focal point of F9? I sure hope not, but a pointless cameo by Cardi B (much like recent franchise cameos by Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart) might give us the best indication where things are headed.
Honestly, there’s a part of me that wishes the childhood flashback sequences were their own offshoot film, since there’s actual emotional depth in those scenes, as well as a great deal of potential in the character of Buddy (Michael Rooker), who was the father’s pit crew chief and best friend. He knows these brothers better than just about anyone, and bringing him into the modern-day fray permanently might give the series some much-needed lift.
I have a complicated relationship with the Fast & Furious movies (or maybe it’s the opposite of complicated). I can’t think of another long-running series that I am less invested in, and the idea of doing a marathon of these movies one day to better understand the connective tissue seems like torture in my mind. That being said, I tend of enjoy these movies on a primal level. I enjoy a good car chase, wild stunt work, or at least something that appears to be a combination of the two. F9 left me a bit empty, and if I were the type to rank these movies (and I’m not), it would place in the bottom half of my list. Perhaps it’s a bit too Furious, without enough Fast, and there’s a part of me that wishes that in the next (possibly last) film, they strip it back to its core characters and try not to be quite so precious about killing off characters who have worn out their welcome. Or maybe I’m the only one who wants to see that, just to change things up a little.
F9 is now in theaters.
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