For a franchise that has somewhat lucked into going from a Point Break rip-off to a dominant blockbuster film franchise about professional street-racers turned international superspies, I enjoy how they’ve decided to channel their ridiculousness. These meathead melodramas are so far beyond nuance, one would have to accidentally reverse into a theater to be unprepared for the action ride F9 delivers. Make no mistake, this latest entry in The Fast Saga isn’t breaking new ground or attempting to appeal to the physics police. Instead, what it lacks in polish when it comes to adding depth to these characters or the plot, it makes up for with what’s under the hood – a series of logic-defying action sequences that are enjoyable to watch as they are dumb.
Following a break from the prime franchise storyline to spend time with The Rock and Jason Statham in their spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw, the ninth Fast & Furious film puts a heavy focus on the current life of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and how his past is coming to get him. As it turns out, Dom has an estranged brother, Jakob (John Cena), and he’s a master thief and assassin, with plenty of driving know-how to rival his older brother.
What does this mean for Dom and his family? Well, Jakob is in on some kind of dastardly plot involving a McGuffin that can have a devastating effect on the world, and he’s getting help from Cipher (Charlize Theron), the cyberterrorist who crossed paths with Dom last time around. To stop them, Dom and his family will have to do what they do best: drive…tactically.
It really is impressive how car-focused these movies continue to be. Every scenario somehow leads to the use of cars as the best course of action. Need to stop Jakob from stealing something? Better get a car. Need to request help from Helen Mirren? Hop into a stolen sportscar with her. Looking for a way to gain control of a moving fortress? Grab a few cars with giant electromagnets, of course. How can you stop a satellite from taking apart all of the computers in the world? You guessed it – strap a rocket onto a Pontiac Feiro and handle it!
Yes, The Fast Saga is now equipped to tackle the final frontier, but would you believe me if I said that aspect is one of the lesser ridiculous things to take place in this film? Honestly, this series, at the very least, adheres to its own understanding of physics, which has never rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not as though this series was built on the foundation of realism, to begin with (though the first film is still rather quaint in its big stunt sequence involving one car driving under a truck compared to the current status of the series where Dom took on a submarine with a Dodge Charger). Really, I go into these films ready to see them try and thrill me with their latest raising of the bar while hoping the characters continue to engage.
This is the area that rides at a preposterous pace. Granted, it’s not as though the caliber of the acting has been a highlight for the franchise, but there was a point when Diesel’s gravely-voiced monologues centered the series enough, without letting the self-seriousness overwhelm everything. In F9, however, Diesel’s need to show everyone (and probably especially Dwayne Johnson) that Dom has as many layers as an onion or an ogre goes into overdrive. Resting the dramatic urgency of this film on the relationship between him and Cena is certainly a choice, but even in a world where the melodrama of this series has always been part of its charm, it’s just too much to handle.
I had similar issues with Fast & Furious, the fourth (and worst) entry in the series, which brought back Diesel and the rest of the original cast. I do enjoy Diesel and believe he has a unique screen presence, but when the dramatic stakes have all the subtlety of a lead pipe, there’s only so much to grasp onto. Not helping is how paper-thin this story is. There’s a difference between elements like this not being the point of the film and lacking entirely as far as moving a story forward. For F9, the motivations seem to amount to bad guys, who totally have all the power and money they could ask for already, want more, and the good guys need to stop them. That’s it. Allegiances may get twisted, but returning director Justin Lin (Fast 3-6), who also serves as co-screenwriter, has his sights targeted on impressive set pieces.
Fortunately, this is where the film shines. A lot of my admiration does come from the use of practical effects. Yes, the choice to go bigger every time out has led to the incorporation of more CG, but with The Fast Saga still set in the real world (and don’t forget: cars do everything), so many scenes in this film rely on actual vehicular destruction. This series is no Mad Max, but it still has plenty of fun ideas on display and is matched by a solid incorporation of practical cars, stunt driving, fights, explosions, and visual effects.
The globetrotting element is also nice. Dom and his team go to jungles, cities, and whatever else is necessary to keep reminding audiences this is an A-level movie franchise when it comes to big screen entertainment that has always embraced international appeal. Going along with that are the larger-than-life characters. Again, Diesel is far from his indie beginnings, but his level of machismo and intensely dramatic stoicism can be effective. The rest of the cast, including Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, and a returning Sung Kang (Justice for Han!), are as good as needed. And this film also has more cameos than a Muppet movie as far as giving the Fast fans plenty of what they like to see.
If there is someone to single out, however, it’s got to be Tyrese Gibson. Having gone from the Diesel replacement in (the still expertly titled) 2 Fast 2 Furious to being the team’s jokester character, I am convinced he is an essential element in this franchise. As Roman, Gibson just gets it. He’s there for comedic relief, to re-emphasize plot points, and to have some cool action beats of his own. And he does it all with a big smile, even when he’s at his most exasperated. I’ve heard rumors of him and Ludacris getting a spin-off as well. As opposed to Hobbs & Shaw, the difference there would be a true drop in quality, were Gibson to be separated from the rest of the family. He serves as a key to understanding the tone of this series, even when it’s being 2 Fast 2 Serious.
So, is F9 adding much to the world of Fast & Furious? Not so much. It’s a decent return, complete with several loose ends to build towards the apparent two-part finale that is currently planned. But does this movie add to the world as a whole? I may have had you going there, but no. It’s simple entertainment. It’s incredibly dumb at times, but gloriously so. It may ride too hard on thinking audiences will be invested in the intense scowls Diesel and Cena make at each other, but this is also a film where Diesel can use his trusty Charger to solve any problem – catching his wife before she falls, crossing a gap where a bridge used to be, taking care of a rocket-launching drone – any problem. Sometimes it really isn’t just about being fast, but it’s always about never losing sight of fun.