As F9 comes to a close, marking two full decades since frenemies evolved into family, machismo found macho enlightenment, and street racers became super-spies, the son of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) zooms a toy car around in the air, his imagination running wild. “You drive like your dad,” chuckles Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, Dom’s amnesiac wife who isn’t the boy’s biological mother, because at the time, Dom thought she was dead. This is the Fast & Furious franchise in its elemental form: Over-the-top vehicular fantasias held together by gym rat soap opera (or 3-in-1 body wash opera). This latest entry marks the return of director Justin Lin, who helped guide the series’ evolution from Tokyo Drift to Fast & Furious 6, and while he struggles with how unwieldy F&F has become, his undeniable understanding of what makes these movies tick keeps the film roaring along.
Lin’s still adding new characters and twists to this high-octane telenovela as often as prefixes, retconning deaths and introducing long-lost brothers as easily as he moves from simply defying physics to defying astrophysics—as easily as he turned street-racing spies into globe-trotting superspies. The crew, including the newly domestic Dom and Letty, is pulled back into the world of…whatever it is they do...once again and their impossible mission (which they always choose to accept) has to do with another globally destructive techno-MacGuffin and a globally destructive flesh-MacGuffin: Dom’s younger brother Jakob (John Cena), excommunicated from the family for sins that become apparent over the course of extensive flashbacks. It goes from the Fast & Furious to the Past & Curious. Associated with all this world threatening is Charlize Theron’s bowl-cut baddie Cipher, back from the previous movie. Small world, right?
In fact, the number of characters and callbacks stuffed into the film approaches critical mass. Without Lin’s tonal mastery of the movies’ earnest silliness, or with just one or two more subplots crammed into the chamber, a chain reaction could shake the whole operation apart. It’s not that it’s ever too dumb (maybe the only impossible feat for this franchise); it’s that there’s simply too much gumming up the works for the usually pristine stupidity to be at peak performance. It starts to feel a bit like a latter-day superhero team-up or Star Wars sequel (a series that F9 namechecks in Theron’s best joke of the film): The cost of service, not just to fans but to the ever-complicating story threads, is pace.
There are simply so many characters, subplots and locales to wrangle that the movie stalls as often as it soars, and any hope of a newcomer following the plot (admittedly, low on the priority list) is lost. But dozing off for a well-earned nap as Lin idles the 145-minute film for a rapport-exploiting heart-to-heart, stand-off or quip-laden piece of banter only makes his setpieces feel more invigorating. The ideas are dumber, the self-awareness greater, the family bigger than ever.
As Dom’s uneasy relationship with Jakob becomes clear—over the course of explosion-laden jungle races, rooftop chases and posh sitting room brawls—F9’s knowing relationship with its own cartoonishness balances it out. One of the funniest gags sees Tyrese Gibson’s Roman openly speculating if he and the rest of the crew have plot armor. Are they actually invincible? The gang realizing that they’re all in a movie seems like it could honestly be the next step, with them turning their cars towards the camera and bursting out of the fiction like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck.
Stunt-jokes that stood out from previous entries, like catching someone thrown dozens of feet in the air on the hood of your speeding car in order to prevent injury, are now commonplace. Diesel and Cena’s bodies crash through walls and highway signs like titanium Kool-Aid Men, cross necklaces swinging wildly around the thick necks of these Ed Hardy hardbodies. But this enjoyably tactile superhumanity isn’t the NOS injection for F9’s engine. While both come too late in the film for my taste (leaving much of the film hanging on how pleased you get seeing the admittedly amusing returns of Sung Kang and Lucas Black), two innovations keep F9 on the cutting edge of ridiculous action: Magnets and rockets.
Yes, F9 sends the first street racers to space. Yes, it is one small quarter-mile for these goobers, one giant Indy 500 for doofuskind. But as Looney Tunes fun as these scenes—as well as the innovative and silly chase/fight scenes punctuated by a supermagnet’s on/off switch—are, they never quite reach the heights of the franchise’s peak action moments. At their best, they allow self-reference to reign supreme and characters like Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey to charmingly undermine the series’ human-machine symbiosis (Emmanuel injects cuteness, humor, guilt and growing confidence into her wincing as she wantonly smashes through Edinburgh). The disregard for all but the most tenuous of science, judged only by how awesome it would look, continues to supplement excellent stunt driving shot with exciting reverence by Lin. I love that Dom drives a muscle car off a cliff, somehow making it grab onto a flailing rope-bridge’s dangling balustrade and swing like Tarzan. I love that Lin frames his first interstellar characters in tight close-ups with awe-inducing reflections.
But such winning ideas, timed as they are to energize a relatively dramatic entry like last-minute nitro boosts, have a hard time standing out amidst the meandering plot and the narrative’s bevy of cameos. Exposition dumps should always come in the form of jewel thief Helen Mirren hauling ass through London, but moments with Kurt Russell, Shea Whigham and even Bow Wow fail to add anything to the film aside from moments for you to snap your fingers and say “Oh, look who it is.”
Perhaps the most telling way in which you can tell that F9’s action is a little underwhelming is that the standout moment from the film is purely dramatic. A shockingly well-directed “life flashing before your eyes” sequence allows Diesel to undersell a bevy of emotions through little more than a lemon-pursed mouth, while Lin spins his past, present and future around him. The visual blend of this sequence, where cinematography, acting and CG effectwork create and navigate a multi-decade timeline, is one of the most satisfying non-action visual moments of the franchise—especially for fans who’ve watched since 2001. It helps that it’s been set up by racetrack flashbacks led by Vinnie Bennett, who is excellent as a young Dom. He channels Diesel without overtly imitating him (though you can sometimes hear him plumbing the depths of his own vocal range) and adds his own more vulnerable spin to the youthful gearhead.
As the movie and its lead struggle with their drama-laden pasts, F9 acknowledges and somewhat overcomes a late-in-life crisis. When your characters and films are built on larger-than-life foundations that necessitate bigger and bolder developments over time, the question of sustaining that identity feels natural. F9’s savvy response is to turn inward, returning to what helped make the series’ best films so goshdarn wholesome and palatable to begin with: Family, loyalty, forgiveness. Every villain is a potential ally; no sin is too great to be absolved by the Eucharist of Corona and barbeque. By fleshing out backstory instead of forging ahead ever-onward, F9 invests in itself and its themes instead of barreling into pure superficial adrenaline. It’s not a great standalone entry into the Fast canon, but as the franchise speeds towards its finish line, it’s still satisfying to know that it’s in the hands of someone well-versed in the series’ strengths and still willing to imagine new ways to crash its toys into each other.
Director: Justin Lin
Writers: Daniel Casey, Justin Lin
Stars: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, John Cena, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang, Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron
Release Date: June 25, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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