It feels like I ask this question with every new “Fast & Furious” movie, but who could have imagined that the modestly budgeted first film about a hotshot undercover cop infiltrating the Los Angeles street racing scene would not only become a huge franchise but also a global box office juggernaut? Yet here we are, twenty years after 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious”, with the ninth installment of the immensely popular series. And if you need further proof of its beloved status, the film has already raked in nearly $300 million in its limited international release. Impressive numbers especially during a pandemic.
I’m still not sure of the official title (“Fast & Furious 9”, “F9”, “Fast 9”, “Furious 9” – the names got weird several movies back), but I’ll call it “F9” for the sake of simplicity. “F9” sees the return of director Justin Lin who also co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Casey. It also sees the departure of screenwriter Chris Morgan who had previously written every film since 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious”. But the central cast all return led by the heart of the film Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. Also returning is Charlize Theron’s cyberterrorist antagonist Cipher and joining the franchise for the first time is John Cena.
“F9” continues a trend that started in “Fast Five” when the series was given a pretty substantial makeover. That’s when it fully embraced the crazy over-the-top globetrotting spectacle. Instead of running from cops and ticking off drug lords they began taking out vengeful rogue mercenaries and megalomaniacal terrorists. Plans for global annihilation were thwarted, not by government agents or super-spies but by gearheads with souped-up cars. And each new movie aimed to one-up the previous ones with wilder, nuttier action. “F9” sticks close to that formula meaning audiences know exactly what they’re going to get.
“F9” shines in the action department but struggles when it comes to story. I say that completely aware that people don’t go to “Fast & Furious” movies for their deep immersive narratives. Yet most of these films are threaded together with just enough plot to keep things interesting. “F9” tries some new things, especially in its attempt to flesh out the history between Diesel’s Dom and his estranged kid brother Jakob (Cena) who is also the film’s chief antagonist. There is a ton of old family baggage and the movie spends way too much time unpacking it through frequent and lengthy flashbacks that are more invasive than intriguing. These scenes repeatedly zap the movie of its energy.
Every other thinly detailed storyline just seems to be there to set up the next action beat. Jakob is after a digital doomsday device called Aries which puts a damper on Don’s retirement with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his young son. Jakob’s motives are muddled at best, but he’s a big enough threat for Dom and his usual cohorts to gas up and go after him. That leads to a number of outrageous and mostly fun action scenes in places like Montecito, Edinburgh and Tokyo, most involving some form of vehicular combat. Lin flat-out knows how to stage, shoot and edit these elaborate sequences and that’s one place where “F9” doesn’t disappoint. The action is stunning and it’s clear where the bulk of the film’s $200 million-plus budget went.
Still it’s hard to shake the clear issues with the writing. To be fair things like logic, reality, even physics simply don’t apply to these movies. You have to turn off a portion of your brain and let some obvious questions and concerns drift off into the ether. But in “F9” some things are hard to look past including the aforementioned bland and momentum-zapping flashbacks. Also, never has the series had a more generic threat to face. It’s not the fault of Cena who starts off as stiff and emotionless as a T-1000 but loosens up over time. There’s just no story for him work with. He’s a bad guy looking for a thing that could essentially destroy the world. The sibling dynamic is supposed to add an extra layer but doesn’t. Instead I spent my time wondering how Jakob has never come up in a franchise so heavily about family.
The main returning characters all do what you expect them to do. Dom speaks in his signature super-serious growls and still has his affinity for white muscle shirts. Letty broods like an overprotective mother but can still hold her own against any of the guys. Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) offer up the film’s comic relief. Mia (Jordana Brewster) brings a sweetness to the film while the spirited Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) may be my overall favorite of the bunch. We also get the return of Han (Sung Kang), a welcomed old face who adds some (not a lot) much-needed depth.
Other characters don’t fare as well. Theron gets a thankless role and spends the bulk of her few scenes in a Magneto-like plastic cell. Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody appears in a couple of transmissions and a flashback then vanishes (I’m still not sure what happened to him). It’s always good seeing Michael Rooker and Helen Mirren but here they mainly just make appearances. Instead time is wasted with needless cameos like a cringe-soaked Cardi B scene that’s only there to have Cardi B in the movie.
“F9” is a tricky film to review. In a very real sense it is exactly what true fans of the series want. It makes no apologies for its over-the-top silliness and it never pretends to be anything other than what it is. For that reason fans will watch and probably leave pleased. But those who may be growing the tiniest bit tired of the franchise’s formula may find themselves checking out during the film’s lengthy runtime. I know I was eyeing my watch and hungry for a little something to chew on. But the action remains the real strength and it bales the movie out. Just barely but enough to making sitting through its 145 minutes worthwhile. “F9” opens today in theaters.