(Originally published at Gunaxin on June 23, 2021.)
There’s not a lot that The Fast Saga (the official series title according to F9‘s posters) can possibly do to go for broke anymore. Let’s see – they’ve raced cars against cars, planes, a tank, a submarine, and countless military and terrorist vehicles. The Toretto gang has hand-picked new family members from all over the globe, sometimes turning adversaries into allies. They’ve traveled to exotic destinations and perpetuated insane havoc in every last one of them; they’ve even done a HALO jump in cars from a cargo plane. One interview with franchise mainstay Vin Diesel (who has played ringleader Dominic Toretto in eight of the nine films) posited that the next step was to see the crew fly into space, as that’s the only place they haven’t gone yet, and well… here we are.
F9 finds all hands on deck pushing for extreme WOW factor and Big Dick Energy, but even they realize that there’s only so far they can go before turning into self-parody. But here’s the thing – they lean completely into it and have fun with it, allowing them to come off as winners and making us gawp at how they amp up each belief-defying action sequence. Lest you wonder, F9 isn’t the best of the post-2011 heist/caper/spy series this franchise has turned into, but it’s at least at peace with how preposterous it is, and it knowingly gives us a wink and a grin as it goes about its business.
Even motormouth Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) in an early scene is dumbfounded at how little each of the main characters has been irreparably damaged or scarred as a result of the many gunfights and car chases they’ve withstood. It’s entirely possible the real-life death of former series star Paul Walker and in-universe deaths of Giselle Yashar (Gal Gadot), Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang), and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) have upset fans to the point where the writers have basically said, “Okay, that’s it – we’re going to dangle these folks from the most dangerous of heights and get them nearly killed, but no more good guys die!”
Posters and trailers for F9 betray the series undoing another of those deaths with this film, and one has to wonder if the Fast and Furious franchise is the biggest exercise in fanservice next to Snakes on a Plane. But by God, it works. Die-hard series fans will rejoice at the sight of Han rejoining the Toretto family, as well as Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), absent for The Fate of the Furious. It’s just as well that she jumps back into the fold, for the newest Big Bad happens to be her and Dominic’s heretofore-unseen and never-mentioned brother, Jakob (John Cena).
When franchises start pulling out the “long lost family” card, that’s usually when you can expect diminishing returns. It’s never a good look, especially with as much history and emphasis on family this specific franchise has packed into its twenty-year span. This sudden introduction of a new Toretto throws new shading onto events as far back as the first film when it was just Dom, Mia, and their gang against the world. We’re shown in interweaving flashbacks how Dom and Jakob came to be where they are and how their father Jack (J.D. Pardo) figures into their relationship. Also revealed is the incident leading to Dom’s first jail stint, the ugliness of which is recounted in the 2001 series originator, revisited in Fast Five, and finally realized cinematically.
It’s an incident that instills trauma in both Dom and Jakob, eventually causing Dom to push Jakob out of his life for good. F9 is a reckoning with the past which has borne conflict in the present, and the fairly predictably timed interspersal of dun-colored footage amid the vibrant tones of current events lays plain how blind we can become to our own perceptions. Dom has always been a one-track character, keeping the best intentions ahead of him while trying to stay on the right side of his morality (yes, even in the first film), and F9’s throughline is him coming to grips with how his actions and Jakob’s – seen from different points of view – have caused even deeper, more grievous wounds than Roman talks about.
This is the pain that F9 layers throughout its proceedings, mining surprising emotion between the most radical of car chases and franchise-staple cheesy humor, underpinning mano a mano moments between Dom and Jakob with a subtle layer of sadness. While we can always count on Vin Diesel to step into his trademark role with the authority he’s wielded for twenty years, John Cena adds a menacing spark as the forgotten, slighted younger brother with the most jagged of chips on his shoulder. Cena’s reliable presence is almost too comforting for him to be a villain, but damn if he’s not fun to watch as Jakob throws Dom around mercilessly and without compunction.
Why’s Jakob in the picture to begin with? He and his crack mercenary squad are hunting down the latest series MacGuffin – the split halves of a device that can override and commandeer any weapons system on the planet using a satellite uplink. (Those of you who remember the opening of this review might do well to keep the last sentence of the first paragraph in mind.) To this end, he’s interrupted Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), the Toretto gang’s mysterious benefactor in Furious Seven and The Fate of the Furious, while transporting “dangerous cargo” which isn’t the first half of the device; this cargo is another frightening element altogether. And it’s not a case of “if,” but “when” this element gets to come out and play…
The MacGuffin plot only serves to move the action along, and the film tends to just go gangbusters all the time with the ever-escalating action turned up to 11, making no attempt to flesh out these already-storied characters. Seriously, if you’ve stuck with the franchise this long, you’ll know exactly who these people are and what they can do. However, in losing personalities for the sake of rushing through set pieces and locations with no seeming attachment, there doesn’t seem to be anything actively reaching out to grab for ourselves. What little humanistic emotion there might be is quickly spackled over by the kind of wanton PG-13 mayhem which makes this series a constant box-office draw.
At one point, Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) says completely straightforward (or is it said with a sheen of knowing self-referential irony?), “Numbers don’t lie. As long as we obey the laws of physics, we’ll be all right.” This line, spoken close to the end of a movie which features (among other things) our leads being shot at from almost point-blank range, cars flying off of cliffs and swinging violently from a rotting rope, awfully selective electromagnetic interference, and someone who doesn’t know how to drive a car taking the wheel for the first time (and it’s a stick shift, for Pete’s sake!) defines exactly how we’re to take the latest in The Fast Saga.
The movie knows what it is and does exactly what it wants to do, which is to drive moviegoers to theaters for ridiculous, overdriven, large-screen entertainment. It’s entertainment that comes with a price, though; time after time, you’ll find yourself throwing your hands up exasperatedly at how much each character can take without serious injury, death, or at least one of their cars getting creamed beyond all hope of repair. But you know full well what you’re in for if you’re going to see this movie, and it for sure ain’t according-to-Hoyle science or realism.
The true purpose of F9 lies in wanting its audience to white-knuckle their theater armrests while our beloved characters pull one Houdini after another, whether they’re trying to escape from an armored personnel carrier or flip said APC with two cars and sheer will. F9 heaves impossible action set piece after impossible action set piece into our brains, priding itself on how many levels of “Holy shit, WHAT?!” they can get away with. Honestly, you can’t help but respect the purity of the mindlessness with which F9 comports itself. The terms “extra” and “next level” do not apply here; the Fast and Furious franchise lives by its own rules, damn it, and rule number one is “give ‘em something to remember.” Boy howdy, do they ever.
(Author’s note: MAJOR props go to the filmmakers for the use of N.W.A.’s “Appetite for Destruction,” which had me lip-synching while my kids looked on in bewilderment.)
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