It really is amazing that we’ve accepted the Fast & Furious franchise going this far for this long. We’re 20 years into the adventures of Dominic Toretto and his band of beefy car boosters, though stealing or racing cars have not been the focus of this franchise for the last five entries. In the 10 years since the franchise-reset Fast Five turned the Toretto gang into international bandits, the world has wholeheartedly accepted these engine-revving rogues evading tanks, driving out of airplanes, hopping between skyscrapers, and blowing-up nuclear submarines. Of course all of these things were executed in the most nonsensical ways possible, but audiences were so impressed with the sheer audacity of it all that they let it slide. The franchise has been so brazen with its stunts, story beats, and timeline retconning that it’s almost respectable. And just when you think the whole machine finally runs out of gas, there’s seemingly always one more gear shift it can pull out of its ass. Enter F9: The Fast Saga.
As always stated through the grumble of Vin Diesel, F9 is about family. Though seemingly retired from the life of speeding and stealing, Dom (Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are called back by their team (Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, and Nathalie Emmanuel) to retrieve something for the MIA Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). Unfortunately, they’re outsmarted by another fast-driving, muscle-bound globe-trotter named Jakob (John Cena), who just so happens to be Dom’s long-lost brother. While Jacob wants to unleash global chaos with the help of super-hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron), Dom and co. have to use their wit and their will to beat Jakob to the punch and save the world in the least subtle way possible.
As mentioned before, the Fast & Furious franchise has been known lately for bringing in story elements tied to the prior movies seemingly out of the blue. Han was with the Toretto crew in Fast Five before his timeline in the previously-released Tokyo Drift, Letty returned from the dead with amnesia in Fast & Furious 6, Owen Shaw had an equally-evil brother in Furious 7, and Dom had a secret love child in The Fate of the Furious. The explanations for these plot points are either yadda-yadda’d or just mentioned in passing, mere stopping points between chase scenes and shootouts.
The two big plot points in F9 are Dom’s brother and the return of Han (Sung Kang), one being successfully laid-out and the other a victim of the dreaded yadda-yadda. Give major credit to franchise veteran Justin Lin (helmer of movies 3-6) and his co-writers, Daniel Casey (Kin) and Alfredo Botello, for slyly mining Dom’s history previously mentioned in the first movie to successfully insert Jakob into the Toretto timeline. Lin uses the opening scene to do a brief remake of Days of Thunder, setting Jakob and Dom on their respective paths. It’s very convenient that Jakob is also an ultra-strong, car-savvy supersoldier, but that’s a detail you can shove aside for the sake of enjoying the rest of the movie.
On the flip side, Han’s return is executed in a hilariously lazy way. His existence in F9 is also tied to the overall plot, but specifically to the doomsday MacGuffin everyone is after and not to the development of the characters (least of all, himself). The in-movie explanation is surprisingly half-baked and feels like a last-minute decision rushed out in the writers’ room. Suspension of disbelief is an absolute necessity to enjoy the Fast & Furious movies, and that’s usually pretty easy to do, but Han’s return is so unnecessary and undercooked that it takes you right out of the fun. And what’s worse is that it adds nothing to the overall mood of the movie. Kang has a droll demeanor that’s the same as almost everyone else in the movie and just fades into the back of the cast. It’s similar to the fault of Fate of the Furious bringing Elsa Pataky’s Elena character from Fast Five back to be Dom’s baby mama for two scenes, something more convenient than clever and only to make the movie happen.
It’s important to mention those two plot points first since they’re the only new and notable things in this latest entry. If you’ve seen any Fast & Furious movie in the past decade, you should know exactly what to expect in F9: wild automotive stunts, technobabble, muscular fistfights, and Diesel and pals scoffing at every possible law of physics. At least Lin and his crew bring a lighter overall tone compared to Fate of the Furious with more colorful locations, a brighter look (cheers to Stephen F. Windon’s lush cinematography) and solid pacing. While the chase scenes and car stunts remain impressive (especially with the inclusion of magnets in the climax), Lin has trouble capturing the hand-to-hand combat in a smooth way.
Most of the fistfights are done in small confined locations like the back of a truck or a small room, leading Lin’s camerawork to suffer the Bourne problem of shaky cameras jerking all around the actors up-close. Still, F9 works best when it follows the lead of other action franchises like Mission: Impossible, John Wick, and James Bond in having its action scenes run on a solid flow. The chase in Edinburgh is the movie’s action highlight, combining slight vehicular mayhem with spots of bare-knuckle brawling and stupefying effects. While the movie’s story leaves a lot to be desired, the more relaxed and fun mood excuses most of the convoluted plot twists and the underwhelming climax.
That mood also helps elevate the actors. Diesel’s age has made him noticeably more sluggish and groggy whenever he’s not angrily posing, but he’s turned the sharp charisma of his youth into a more relaxed and assured persona. Much like modern-age Sylvester Stallone, Diesel brings a time-tested earnestness to Dom as if he truly has seen the worst of the world and takes things however they come. However limited his acting may be, Diesel wisely uses his elder status to inform Dom’s development. Since the franchise is Diesel’s baby, the rest of the cast pop in and out to varying degrees of success.
Gibson remains an acceptable comic relief and here he’s not nearly as obnoxious as he was in previous entries. Emmanuel finally has a comedic moment that she rises to while spatting hacker jargon for most of the runtime. Even good ol’ Helen Mirren stops by for a cameo and makes for a far more charming pair with Diesel than Hobbs & Shaw did in their spinoff. This of course means that there are weak links in the chain: as mentioned, Kang has nothing to do despite coming back from the dead, Rodriguez’s eternal badassery is utterly wasted, and it remains shocking that someone who raps with as much charisma as Ludacris could be such a boring actor. You especially feel bad for Theron, who has proven herself to be a fantastic action hero in Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde but is literally stuck in a glass box with a bad haircut for most of her screen time.
But F9 has one true star in its cast and much to his chagrin, it’s not Diesel. Cena damn near steals the movie as much as his fellow WWE alumnus Dwayne Johnson did a decade earlier in Fast Five. In fact, Cena is a better match for Diesel here than Johnson was. While Johnson certainly matched Diesel in terms of physicality, his charisma was on a different level than the franchise star and that led to a clash (in more ways than one) rather than a gelling. Cena’s Jakob, on the other hand, makes for a great Bizarro-Dom with his slick hair and sharp suits. Now playing a villain, he revels at snidely showing up Diesel while still going toe-to-toe in combat. He gets slightly undercut in the movie’s climax, but Cena’s performance still makes the case for his own future as a very entertaining action-movie antihero (we’ll see if that pans out in James Gunn’s hands).
So what is F9 if not a bloated heap of efficiency and stupidity? We never needed nine of these movies (lord knows we don’t need 10), but at least Universal is putting the franchise’s future in the right hands. Whatever logical or creative faults F9 has are covered up by a cast that’s still (mostly) up for the shenanigans and a production team that knows what the franchise’s strong suits are. It can be big and loud and macho, but it shouldn’t take itself too seriously. No matter how much money is put into it or if it shines like a new chrome finish, the Fast & Furious movies are trash, and the more it embraces its corny absurdity, the easier it is to see Ludacris go into outer space (you’re welcome, internet).
F9 is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer here.