F9 review: The Fast saga almost gets back on track

·8 min read

"How in the hell are you not dead?" asks Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges). It's very early in F9, and several fast things have already happened furiously. Mournful motorlord Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his amazing automobile acrobats are hunting spyplane wreckage in some Central American jungle. "We do not want to cross paths with the military here," explains hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), before two separate militaries arrive. Everyone drives a vehicle that expresses their inner being. Roman (Tyrese Gibson) rides a jeep so armored its tires do a harmless bunny-hop when landmines explode underneath. The car's too big, like Roman's ego. It almost crushes him: Irony.

As he stumbles away from the flaming wreckage, Tej asks how Roman is possibly still alive. I love how Gibson mumbles an incoherent response, something like "uhhhUUUHHhhhh." That's what I say when anyone asks me how in the hell The Fast and the Furious isn't dead. Every other ongoing movie series is based on some kind of something: fantasy novels, comics, residual George Lucas wonder fumes, toys, the extremely dubious argument that there should be more than two Alien movies. In contemporary franchise Hollywood, the best way to be successful now is to have already been successful a generation ago. That's not very American, even if it's how America works. So I will forever cherish how an immortal car family became a billion-dollar industry by sheer force of Diesel will. This saga always blazes a new trail, even when it takes a wrong turn. But how will you ever fly if you don't try driving off a cliff?

There have been wrong turns, though. It's been four years since The Fate of the Furious trapped Charlize Theron on an evil airplane, and two years since the spinoff Hobbs & Shaw let two middle-aged non-comedians riff about impregnating a frenemy's little sister, ho ho ho. Both films left you feeling nothing was happening constantly, which also describes the bored-hysterical global mood between F9's initial April 2020 release date and its delayed arrival this week.

Many moviegoers will come back to theaters for this. Appropriately, "return" is a key theme. Longtime Fast director Justin Lin departed with 2013's Furious 6, which memorably re-killed Sung Kang's laconic Han. They both come home in this new entry. So does Jordana Brewster. Her Toretto sister rejoins Dom to face their long-lost brother Jakob (John Cena), an international carsassin who schemes to become "the god of damn near everything."

First, F9 returns to the dawn of the whole Fast idea. Twenty years after Dom delivered a monologue about watching his father die nasty, F9 begins with Jack Toretto (JD Pardo) zooming around 1989 racetrack. What happens to him is written in the scriptures. What you don't expect are ongoing flashbacks to young Dom (Vinnie Bennett) and little Jakob (Finn Cole). Theirs is a tale of vengeance and betrayal, King Hamlear Macbethello starring Cain and Abel and tank tops. Suffice it to say, they really put the "lie" in "family." In the present, the brothers battle across the globe. They fight on rooftops, through buildings, onto cars, off those cars over a bridge onto other cars. That's all just one scene, and I haven't mentioned the magnets.

Inventing a new sibling out of thin air is how soap operas fill time in season 27. One amazing thing about F9 is that this Hail Mary twist kind of works. Diesel is at his best when he seems to be struggling internally with repressed tragedies from last century. Dom so barely resembles Jakob that the dialogue winks at a "mixed bloodline." Still, Cena's the first Fast antagonist since Dwayne Johnson who's big enough to bodyslam Diesel. That physical threat packs a visual punch. Whenever they're together, you remember the muscular craftsmanship Lin brought to his earlier Fast films. It's an ever-so-slight grounding that let you believe in continent-long runways and crashing trucks flipping safely over human heads.

Lin co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Casey. Their story should theoretically have more focus, because the ensemble's a bit smaller. Kurt Russell's Mr. Nobody is only glimpsed a couple times. Theron appears for a few short scenes in the last glass prison cinema should ever allow. Johnson's sealed away in his spin-off. Paul Walker's unfortunate death means Brian O'Conner is stuck at home with the kids, a workaround I choose to read as a profound call to action: This action dad takes parenting seriously, man! The female characters have more to do (he wrote suspiciously, worrying that their subplots feel very sub indeed). Ramsey finally drives a car. So does Helen Mirren's Lady Shaw. Mia pairs up with Michelle Rodriguez' Letty to fight bad guys using everyday kitchen utensils. Brewster spent a couple sequels devotedly pregnant behind a keyboard. Now, at last, she hits somebody with a frying pan.

I missed Lin's steady hand in the recent CGI-heavy installments. F9 has a lot of wrestling duels inside of moving vehicles. You can follow the tight-quarters combat even when you forget why they're fighting. I also missed Lin's natural generosity, the way he insistently makes minor characters shine like major stars. He joined the franchise with 2006's endearing offshoot Tokyo Drift, and some Tokyo Drifters reappear here. Fifteen years later, they've grown into… experimental vintage car scientists, if that's a job? They're paid to strap rockets onto things that don't usually get strapped to rockets. A bit of self-expression there, maybe, from a director who works hard finding weird ways to blow things up.

Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures

F9 sure sounds like a lot of fun. Why is it only a little fun? There are way too many magnets, which as a whole car-swooping conceit are only cool about 47 percent of the time. The bigger issue is that Han's resurrection isn't as awesome as it should be. The character was killed by Jason Statham's Shaw, who joined the hero team with barely any reference to that time he murdered everyone's cool friend. This mistake requires some kind of reckoning. F9 brazenly turns that showdown into a sequel tease.

That see-you-next-movie shamelessness reveals some deeper problems afflicting the Fast saga in its cinematic-universe incarnation. Something special drained out of this series when the heroes transformed from crusading car-heisters into world-saving explodo-spies. Much of the F9 story happens because Mr. Nobody tells various somebodies to do various somethings. I don't want my heroes to do things because a generic espionage manager tells them what to do. I want them to do things because they feel a passionate need to do those things: Because they need money, because someone killed the love of their life, because the love of their life is back from the dead with amnesia, because Carter Verone is Miami's cruelest smuggler!!

Worth pointing out that Jakob's motivation is just goofy enough to be interesting. He's trying to get out of his brother's shadow; he seeks world domination because his world is so utterly Dom-inated. He's almost a great villain. I wish that space wasn't so crowded. Jakob's annoying partner, Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), seems to be Putin's son. Cipher remains pointlessly evil, an attitude without a character. The first people to attack the Toretto crew are a fictional Central American army. We used to make fun of '80s movies for stuff like this, before people forgot '80s movies were bad. I know people who think all the Fasts are stupid, and those people are stupid. But the best Fasts blend unhinged ridiculousness with over-the-top sincerity, which works best tethered to big characters feeling big emotions. F9 briefly foregrounds Dom and Letty struggling with new parental responsibilities. Then everyone gets handcuffed to a deathly fetch the glowing green god-computer mission.

There are bright spots. Edinburgh looks lovely. Dom has to hold off a couple dozen henchmen with his bare hands. His solution would be biblical, if Samson didn't need so much hair. There are a few scenes where Ramsey explains plot things with a giant computer; I swear I spotted a Super Mario Question Block on her big screen. Roman's early brush with death gets him thinking about all those other times he walked away from fatal catastrophe without a scratch. It's very meta, yet Gibson finagles sweet confusion into the self-awareness. He can't figure out why nobody else is freaking out. The film's best moment is a close-up on Roman's face, positively enraptured by the most ridiculous thing Fast & Furious has ever done.

Lin will stick around for two more sequels, which will allegedly end the mainline series. His work here steers the franchise in the right direction, but it's not a complete fix. The title doesn't lie. F9 isn't bad, and it's not good. It's just fnine. B-

F9 opens in theaters on June 25.

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