Fast and Furious 9
With more emphasis on its soapy storyline than its spectacular stunts, the latest instalment in the high-octane franchise feels like it's on auto-pilot.
June 17, 2021
Fast cars, furious action stars, a love of family and oh-so-many Coronas: across ten movies over 20 years, that's the Fast and Furious franchise. It might've started out as a high-octane spin on Point Break, but this long-running series has kept motoring across nine flicks in its main storyline, and also via a 2019 spinoff. The latter, Hobbs & Shaw, actually casts a shadow over the saga's latest instalment. Because Dwayne Johnson was part of that sidestep, he doesn't show up in Fast and Furious 9. He's missed, regardless of whether you're usually a diehard fan of the wrestler-turned-actor, because he's managed to perfect the F&F tone. Over his decade-long involvement to-date, Johnson always seems amused in his Fast and Furious performances. He's always sweaty, too, but that's another matter. Entering the F&F realm in Fast Five, he instantly oozed the kind of attitude the franchise needs. He knows that by taking the outlandish stunts, eye-catching setpieces and penchant for family with the utmost seriousness, these films border on comedic — and by navigating five flicks with that mood, he's been the saga's playful and entertaining barometer.
Without Johnson, Fast and Furious 9 isn't as willing to admit that it's often downright silly. It's nowhere near as fun, either. Hobbs & Shaw wasn't a franchise standout, but Fast and Furious 9 mainly revs in one gear — even in a movie that features a high-speed car chase through Central American jungles, a plane with a magnet that can scoop up fast-driving vehicles, Helen Mirren (Winchester) racing through London's streets and a trip to space in a rocket car. The latest F&F is as ridiculous as ever, and it's the least-eager F&F film to acknowledge that fact. It's also mostly a soap opera. It leans heavily on its favourite theme — yes, family — by not only swapping in a different wrestler-turned-actor as Dominic Toretto's (Vin Diesel, Bloodshot) long-lost sibling, but also by fleshing out the warring brothers' backstory through flashbacks to their tragic past.
Fast and Furious 9 starts with an 80s-era Universal logo, because that's the time period it heads to first — to introduce a teen Dom (Vinnie Bennett, Ghost in the Shell), his never-before-mentioned younger brother Jakob (Finn Cole, Dreamland) and their dad Jack (JD Pardo, Mayans MC). It's 1989, the elder Toretto is behind the wheel on the racetrack, and his sons are part of his pit crew. Then tragedy strikes, tearing the Toretto family apart. In the present day, Dom and Jakob (John Cena, Playing with Fire) definitely don't get along. Indeed, when Roman (Tyrese Gibson, The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two), Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Show Dogs) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, Four Weddings and a Funeral) drive up to the rural hideout that Dom has been calling home with wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, Crisis) and toddler son Brian (first-timers Isaac and Immanuel Holtane) since the events of 2017's The Fate of the Furious, he doesn't even want to hear about the latest mission that demands their help. The only thing that changes his mind: realising that Jakob is involved and up to no good.
From there, Fast and Furious 9 doesn't skimp on plot across its two-and-a-half hours, but it's all just an excuse to send Dom and the gang on yet another globe-hopping trip to save the world (yes, again). Much of the storyline mimics the last film, in fact, including the return of cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron, The Old Guard) — although this time there's a different high-tech gimmick that could end life as we know it, and a different reason behind Dom's determination to protect his crew. Returning for his fifth F&F flick, as well as his first since 2013's Fast & Furious 6, writer/director Justin Lin doesn't challenge himself, narrative-wise. Co-scripting with franchise first-timer Daniel Casey (Kin), he largely throws a heap of the saga's usual elements together, dials up the emphasis on family, and hopes that the reappearance of familiar faces — such as the already-teased return of Han (Song Kang, Lisey's Story) — will fill in the gaps. And there are gaps; more than once, the movie ends a big scene by jumping to the group at a later point, but doesn't trouble itself to explain what happened.
Sense? Logic? Coherence? The Fast and Furious films haven't ever expended much energy on these. It makes zero sense that Dom's son is called Brian, for instance — he's named after Paul Walker's character, but the latter is still alive in the saga (albeit never seen now), so that celebratory gesture towards the late actor has no rationale in the on-screen story. Fast and Furious 9 doesn't just zoom past rationality a quarter-mile at a time, though. It's really just a collection of scenes that Diesel and Lin think are cool, complete with 197,000 references to family. Here, even the fast cars and big stunts get drowned out by the melodrama. When Lin lets the action choreography truly let loose, this franchise-extender is easily at its best, but that happens less often and in a more routine way than it should. Plus, in a series that's hardly known for its acting, all the bloated chatter and soapiness is still far too cartoonish to even dream of grounding the OTT saga in real emotion.
This far in, not just inertia but also a lack of imagination seems to be grinding F&F's gears, with genuinely new and exciting action ideas almost as rare as a high-pitched squeak from the gravelly voiced Diesel. Fast and Furious 9 has its characters play a real-life version of Frogger, celebrates magnets more than Jesse Pinkman, name-drops Harry Potterand visually apes Star Wars, for example. It also ponders whether Dom and the gang are superheroes, and has Roman get meta and ask how they've all escaped the past 20 years unscathed. This should all be knowingly, winkingly ludicrous. It never feels that way, however, and no one's motors will be thrumming while watching. Like too many big franchises these days, Fast and Furious 9 also saves one of its best moments for its post-credits slot, teasing what'll come next. If only the bulk of what preceded it didn't feel like a franchise blandly on auto-pilot.