Fast & Furious 9 (2021)
Justice Is Coming.
Ah well, they can’t all be winners.
Let me start by acknowledging that I am a huge fan of the Fast & Furious flicks, easily my favorite modern action franchise. I ranted about my love for the series here. But after ten movies (including the Hobbs & Shaw spin-off) and an animated series, the odd lesser effort is inevitable. Fast & Furious 9, or Fast 9, or F9: The Fast Saga, or whatever they’re calling it in your neck of the woods, is one.
Really, it’s not markedly different from its predecessors, dealing with themes of family and loyalty, invoking its own increasingly convoluted mythology (I may not be able to map the Saw franchise’s metaplot, but I’m all over the Toretto family history), and being packed with increasingly ludicrous but hugely enjoyable action set pieces. The cast is all great, and that’s as it should be: they’ve been doing this for a while now and can slip into their roles like they’re pulling on an old coat. It ticks every old box but sadly doesn’t fill in any new ones. The Fast & the Furious has been on a steady upward trajectory since the fourth installment when it really figured out what kind of series it was going to be, but with this latest episode, it becomes apparent that the fuel load may need to be reformulated if we’re going to keep accelerating (I’ll try to keep these puns to a minimum in case I embarrass myself — folks, I don’t even drive).
The gang is pulled out of semi-retirement — Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) are raising the impossibly cute Brian, Dom’s son by the late Elena (Elsa Pataky) — when shady government spook and occasional patron Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) disappears after his plane is attacked while transporting the villainous Cipher (Charlize Theron) to some kind of black site prison. Who’s behind it? Why, it’s Dom’s heretofore unmentioned little brother, Jakob (John Cena), having turned himself into a James Bond-level covert agent after accidentally (or not so accidentally?) killing their stock car racing dad, Jack (J.D. Pardo), back in the day.
The Fast & the Furious has always had a convoluted timeline, but this one heads right into The Godfather Part II (1974) territory, with significant flashbacks to the Toretto boys in their youth as Dom (Vinnie Bennett) goes to prison for beating a guy half to death while Jakob (Finn Cole) gets taken in by kindly mechanic Buddy (the always welcome Michael Rooker). In the modern-day, the gang finds themselves going after a high-tech McGuffin called Aries, which will let the wielder crack any computer system in the world (nonsense, but let’s not quibble about realism ten films deep into a series that has never had much use for it).
So, we have all the usual suspects doing their thing, Cipher slinking around in the background pulling strings, and John Cena in the mix providing a genuinely challenging opponent and foregrounding the whole “family” thing.
Oh, and Han (Sung Kang) is back, as the trailers have already revealed. #justiceforhan, indeed. The explanation will either have you marveling at its audacity or sneering at its ridiculousness. There is no middle ground. A whole heap of other familiar faces drawn from the series’ deep bench also crop up, but it’s more fun to discover those for yourself.
There’s a lot to enjoy here on a character by character and scene by scene level, and if you dig just hanging out with these characters, you’ll get plenty of bang for your buck in that department. If nothing else, I’m firmly convinced that Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) are a throuple now, even if the text never explicitly states it, and yes, Tej and Roman do go into space, fulfilling the implicit promise of even more outlandishness that F&F makes every movie. Our simple, uncomplicated assumptions about physics are once again given an absolute pounding, an early highlight being a chase across a jungle bridge that essentially tells gravity to go fuck itself. We also get the delightful sight of Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006), engaging in a car chase through the streets of London, which is worth the price of admission alone (the film careens from South America to London to Tokyo to Los Angeles at breakneck speed).
So, why is Fast 9 somewhat disappointing?
I think it’s a question of stakes.
Putting aside the tragic real-life death of actor Paul Walker, death in the F&F universe is a very temporary thing. Previously dead characters (Letty, Han) come strolling back into the Torettos’ sphere on the reg, which is fine in the soap opera action movie universe of the films (someone at my screening called the series a telenovela, and they’re not wrong) and actually adds to the fun. But the franchise also has a habit of hanging onto characters, even villains, and incorporating them into the Toretto found family. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) straight up killed Han — or appeared to — and is now an ally. I fully expect Cipher to be hoisting a Corona at a family barbecue by the time the credits roll on F10. So, if nobody dies and our villains are just friends we haven’t met, what is actually at stake here?
Emotionally, what’s at stake has always been — 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) and The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2003) aside — Dom’s extended family, and the biggest threats have been ones that attack not the individual members, but the ties that bind them together. That’s why Dom teaming up with Cipher in F8: The Fate of the Furious (2017) works so well — it’s a totally melodramatic move, but it works in the context of the series. Bringing in Jakob Toretto — Dom has to fight his own brother, guys! — should function similarly, but because a) we’ve never heard of this guy before and b) we have a fair idea of where we’re going to end up by the time the film finishes, there’s not much in the way of suspense.
Suspense is a nebulous concept in long-running serial storytelling because we know that, for example, Batman isn’t gonna die, and neither is Spider-Man, and they’re not gonna drop a nuke on Ramsay Street or Summer Bay. But we pretend that those things are possible, and the craft of working in these spaces is in making it easy for the reader to pretend.
F9 makes it difficult to pretend. Not impossible, perhaps, but this is the first time in the series where, in the moment, I could see the checklist being marked off. You may mock, but one of the keys to enjoying movies when your job is to analyze them is to buy into the premise of the story, essentially switching off the analytical part of your mind and saving that work for later. The principle is largely the same as what I said about pretend suspense, and good films make it easy, and bad movies make it hard.
Fast & Furious 9 isn’t a bad film, per se, but it’s a pretty perfunctory one, and I’m not sure it bodes well for the upcoming final film in the main series (spin-offs will continue to spin off, though), which will need to do some spectacular narrative gymnastics in order to pull this whole thing together into some kind of satisfying conclusion. I’m reasonably sure that long-time F&F creative mainstays, director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan can stick the landing, but this placeholder entry has shaken my confidence a little.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson