F9 isn’t exactly the Fast Franchise at its best, but it might be heading in the right direction with a dynamite finale and a rekindling of its earnest family-first spirit.
This review of F9 is spoiler-free.
There is no franchise in contemporary blockbuster moviemaking – perhaps not in any kind of moviemaking, ever – that has had a weirder trajectory than The Fast and the Furious. Nowhere else will you find a series so willing and able to completely reinvent itself. In no other circumstances would you be okay with such nonsensical titling practices. Even the Marvel machinery can’t kill off and reintroduce fan-favorite characters so frequently, and in circumstances as contrived as these. At this point, nine entries and a spin-off deep, Fast & Furious is as much a generation-defining on-screen cinematic Universe as anything the House of Mouse has produced, but it took a much bumpier road to get there.
Nothing about these films makes any sense. They started out as a modest street-racing drama with an earnest enthusiasm for car culture and manly fist-bumps, and even as every subsequent installment retained those things, the use the cars were put to and the circumstances surrounding the fist bumps became more and more bonkers. The second film was a buddy-cop actioner; the third was a high-school movie (though with an obviously grown man playing the lead); the fourth was a revenge drama. The fifth is where things got interesting, and remains the best of them, inexplicably transforming a franchise that still hadn’t produced a legitimately good movie into a five-star action epic. The sixth, seventh, and eighth installments continued along the lines of international espionage extravaganzas, every cast member either learned or revealed they already knew kung fu, and well-known celebrities from every corner of Hollywood were roped into playing supporting characters or villains or obvious pastiches of their typical on-screen personas – sometimes all of the above.
Despite all this, the films never lost their earnest soul. Superficially they were about spectacle, but under the hood, they had a real beating heart; they were as much family melodramas as anything else and boasted one of the most effortlessly cosmopolitan ensembles in Hollywood. As the films’ relationship with the laws of physics got looser, the characters’ relationship with each other got tighter, even while off-screen bickering and one-upmanship led to an ill-advised if not entirely without merit spin-off and meant that the latest film, F9, doesn’t feature The Rock or Jason Statham at all. But not to worry, since it features almost every other major and minor character from the franchise’s history and some new ones besides. For all the flaws in this movie, of which there are plenty, it retains a turbocharged enthusiasm for its own mythology that enduring fans will delight in.
But ironically for a film so obsessed with “10-second cars”, F9 takes ages to get going. At several points throughout the first hour or so I found my eyes glazing over a bit. The banter felt too familiar. The drama felt too overblown. The set-pieces, even ostensibly decent ones like a breakneck chase through a minefield that requires the vehicles to maintain a certain speed to outrun the explosions, felt like stuff we’ve seen before. There was a cynicism to returning figures from the mythology – including a big one spoiled in the trailers which makes precious little sense, and a couple from the most disconnected film that the retcons seem especially determined to make more important than any other – that felt more like soulless brand-building than even this franchise is used to. But blimey, when it gets where it’s going, it arrives with more screeching tires, exhaust fumes, moon physics, and earnest sentimentality than the last two or three films have managed combined.
If this stuff is worth waiting for, which it is, then that doesn’t necessarily justify the overly familiar way we get there, with Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Ramsay (Nathalie Emmanuel) turning up out of nowhere to bring Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) out of self-imposed retirement with Dom’s toddler son, Brian. We’re to be concerned, I think, that Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, seen only on tablet screens) has gone AWOL with Charlize Theron’s returning villain Cipher, and, as Tyrese puts it to Dom in hilariously clunky fashion, “That’s the woman who murdered the mother of your child!”. He must have needed reminding.
This takes the usual gang to the made-up Central American country of Montequinto where that minefield chase happens, and where we’re also introduced to Jakob (John Cena), Dom’s long-lost brother who has a private army and half of a very vaguely defined McGuffin that’ll allow him to do something worrying with computers, which for him just seems like a way of proving himself to a big brother who was always their father’s favorite. A bit more context for all this family drama is provided in semi-frequent flashbacks in which Dom and Jakob’s father (JD Pardo) is killed in a car wreck on a California speedway that is hilariously over the top, even by the standards of this franchise. Young Dom blames Young Jakob (Finn Cole) for the accident for some roundabout reasons and hasn’t seen him since a banishment that he clearly never quite got over.
Jakob’s introduction seems like the latest turn in an increasingly soapy and ridiculous franchise, but his issues with Dom basically morph into the entire plot of F9, so it’s not an insignificant development. The flashbacks are also interesting in that they’re very reminiscent of earlier films in the franchise, particularly the first and fourth, so for a while, F9 feels like the ghosts of the series’ past and present running in parallel. That’s more self-awareness than the last one managed.
It’s still a bit tedious, though, at least until a finale involving electromagnets that might be the best set-piece the franchise has ever come up with, which is saying something. This late stretch is also where the chickens from the reminiscing come home to roost. There’s a surprising amount of on-brand emotional heft in the outcome that isn’t exactly earned but benefits from the specific kind of alchemy that this franchise has always excelled in, the transmuting of contrivance and hammy bro-God proselytizing into narrative gold. There’s plenty here to shake your head at and make fun of, but away from it all, there’s a sense that a franchise that was increasingly spinning its wheels has managed to regain its grip on the road. Where that road leads next is anyone’s guess, but it’ll inevitably be a laugh finding out.