A film review by Craig J. Koban August 9, 2021

F9 jj
 

2021, PG-13, 145 mins.

Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto  /  Michelle Rodriguez as Letty Ortiz  /  Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce  /  Ludacris as Tej Parker  /  Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey  /  John Cena as Jakob Toretto  /  Sung Kang as Han Lue  /  Jordana Brewster as Mia Toretto  /  Charlize Theron as Cipher  /  Helen Mirren as Magdalene 'Queenie' Shaw  /  Kurt Russell as Mr. Nobody  /  Vincent Sinclair Diesel as Younger Dom  /  Vinnie Bennett as Young Dom  /  Finn Cole as Young Jakob  /  Thue Ersted Rasmussen as Otto  /  J. D. Pardo as Jack Toretto  /  Michael Rooker as Buddy  /  Cardi B as Leysa  /  Bad Bunny as Lookout

Directed by Justin Lin  /  Written by Daniel Casey and Justin Lin
 

 

 

 

Pretty remarkable to think that when the first FAST AND THE FURIOUS film was released twenty years ago it was a relatively grounded POINT BREAK knock-off that explored the underground world of Corona beer drinking and tank top shirt adored street racers that stole high end VCRs and DVD players. 

Yeah.  Good times. 

I keep sounding those nostalgic bells in my reviews for these films, but it's hard not to.  Watching the evolution - if one could call it that - of this cinematic universe - if one could also call it that - makes for a fascinating case study.  The exploits of Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto and company began so modestly with the 2001 series launcher, which showed his hoodlum with a code and love for "family" going up against the late Paul Walker's undercover cop Brian O'Connor, which later morphed into a highly unlikely partnership and later bromance.  Each entry since the beginning has upped the ante - for better or worse -  and to think that this series nearly creatively died after FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT is astounding, in retrospect.  Then a surprising thing happened: The makers got the old crew back together, cranked up the incredulous action and stunts to level 11, and the F&F franchise got jump started (sorry for the car puns) back to life with the great FAST FIVE (the best of the bunch) and have not looked back since...even after the death of one of its original cast members.   

Compellingly - and some would aptly say preposterously - the series got grander and a whole lot dumber, but in an infectious and non-condescending manner.  As we careened towards FURIOUS 7 (still maybe the best seventh film in a franchise...ever) and the last sequel in THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS those simple glory days of peddling hot electronics are all but gone for Dom's clan.  Now, these films are less gritty, per se, and have fully embraced the limits of vehicular and espionage ridiculousness, with Dom becoming a makeshift super spy embroiled in the stopping the plans of nefarious, world dominating evildoers.  That, and the action started approaching sci-fi levels of sheer incredulity, almost laughably so.  That's not a criticism.  This long winded prologue finally brings me to F9 (or FAST AND THE FURIOUS 9, or F&F9...however you want to slice it), which might just be the most insane entry of the bunch on a level of sheer unbelievable spectacle.  It doesn't have Dwayne Johnson deflecting torpedoes with his hands, mind you, but if you want grander displays of physics and gravity defying action...then this is for you. 

Coming out almost four years after THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (curse you, pandemic!) and two years after the last F&F centric spin-off in HOBBS AND SHAW, F9 sees Dom and family after their dangerous altercation with cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), and now we see Dom and the love of his life in Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) retired to the country for a life of solitude off the grid with their young son in "Little Brian" (awwwww).  Unfortunately, as is always the case with these films, fate stomps in to rob these people of any semblance of a normal life: Old friends Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris Ludicrous Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) come to their country home to inform them that a super-duper top secret weapon (is there any other kind in these films?) has been taken from the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, in cameo form here) out of his hands and - gasp! - Cipher was kidnapped while in his custody at the same time.  The man most directly responsible is Jakob (John Cena), and he may outwardly appear like another beefy baddie for Dom to take out...but this time it's hugely personal as Jakob - double gasp! - is Dom's long estranged brother. 

 

 

We get some backstory behind this sibling rivalry in the form of sprinkled in flashbacks, during which time we're whisked back to the 1980s and see Dom and Jakob in their youth (played by Vinnie Bennett and J.D. Pardo, both of whom never once seem credibly cast as baby faced versions of these brothers) and we learn of the once fabled story of their dad dying on the race track, which Dom believed was orchestrated by Jakob, leading to their hostile split from one another.  Flashforward to the present and the emotionally wounded Dom - still deeply hateful of his bro and his perceived backstabbing ways - feels obligated to come out of spy retirement and stop him and his partners from acquiring three separate pieces to a device that will lead to the holder achieving utter world domination (for realsies!).  Dom has his work really cut out for him and realizes the severity of this mission, but he's soon surprised by a few other people from his past (one presumed to be dead) re-emerging to give him and is squad a much needed assist in taking his evil sibling down. 

Director and co-writer Justin Lin has returned as well to the F&F fold here (he was absent behind the camera in THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS) and he seems to have no problems whatsoever in terms of spoon feeding precisely what die hard series fans are always clamoring for in these films: Improbable automobile madness of the most absurd kind set against the backdrop of multiple world spanning locations (if anything, F9 certainly expands the geographical terrain of this series to impressively varied levels - characters race around areas as far ranging as Central America, the UK, Japan, Eastern Europe, etc.).  And, dear Lord in heaven, this film's action and stunts are nuts to the max.  Over the top is simply not an accurate descriptor here.  Moments involving souped up cars are the stuff of children's sandbox play here, and it's kind of giddily exciting how these films manage to find new ways to have cars achieve the impossible...and then gleefully go past the impossible.  An opening sequence, for example, had me howling over with affectionate laughter: It involves Dom escaping pursuers in a jungle with his tricked out car, leading to him nitro boosting himself off a cliff, shooting a massive harpoon from the car into the cliffside, and then swinging the entire free falling vehicle into a Tarzan like swing onto an adjacent cliff.  Of course, Dom and Letty (neither of whom were visibly wearing seatbelts) are unscathed by the horrendous crash.  Hi-larious.   

There's another fantastically silly series of action beats involving Dom and his pals navigating all of their vehicles around land mines (with predictably explosive results) and an even zanier sequence with a truck containing a massive electromagnetic device that's able to pull just about anything metal within its vortex, leading to a lot of inspired car crashes.  Perhaps most joyously absurd is the return of the old crew from TOKYO DRIFT that are now delving into rocket propulsion with cars, which leads to the unavoidable of blasting a few of the heroes off into space (literally!) in a franchise first (seriously, this was the only gravity-transcending frontier these characters have not attained in their adventures).  All of this limitless inanity is done pretty tongue in cheek and not to be taken seriously, but it at least builds to some sly meta writing this go around, as Roman at one point begins to seriously ponder why nearly everyone in Dom's tight knit street racing/spy group seems to be impervious to...well...death.  To be fair, he might be finally on to searching for answers to questions that most viewers have been probably asking several films ago.   

I only wished, though, that the entire film built around these outlandish action beats didn't take itself as serious as a heart attack.  There's a weird tonal whiplash that comes to the forefront here more than in any other F&F entry, especially when it comes to the two perpetually brooding and steely eyed brothers at the heart of this story's conflict.  Diesel has always been fairly robotic in this franchise (but it at least harnesses his physical assets and presence well), but his interplay with the building sized Cena leaves a lot to be desired here.  The former WWE superstar has impressed me in some of his against type roles (see his very underrated comedic performance in the equally underrated BLOCKERS), but here he's a disappointment in terms of carving out a memorable villain to go toe-to-toe with Diesel.  The arc of this character has some interesting layers (I appreciated the film trying to dig deep into the tragic Toretto family history), but when all is said and done, Cena and Diesel don't have much on-screen magnetism together.  They growl, stare, and hiss at one another, and not much else; it's all posturing machismo.  Considering the possibilities that could have been explored here, F9 is kind of a letdown.  It's not helped that the two granite jawed actors play things as solemnly as Shakespeare, which works against the rest of the unbridled daftness built around them.   

There are other problems that are inescapable too, like the fact that they're perhaps too many characters vying for attention, with many others being horribly sidelined with nothing to do (like Theron's Cipher and Russell's Mr. Nobody).  Then there's the resurrection of the Han character (who was brutally murdered by Jason Statham's Shaw...or was he?), which involves some ultra convenient franchise reconfiguring that made even the F&F apologist in me roll my eyes.  I do, however, like how these films have become more equal opportunist as they've gone on, like giving the female players much more to do here.  I like how Letty and her new sidekick in - double, double gasp! - Jordana Brewster's Mia (baby sister to Dom) get to figure in heavily in the action as much as their male comrades (granted, in terms of explaining the absent Brain O'Connor, the screenplay never once feels plausibly adequate in this regard...he's babysitting everyone else's kids...sure...uh huh...you bet).  Then there are obligatory series beats that seem regurgitated here, like a massive technological MacGuffin that everyone wants, characters changing allegiances at the drop of a hat, and considerable simonizing at the value of "family."  So much of this is getting awfully stale. 

Also, F9 doesn't so much have an ending as much as it has a build up leading towards future sequels (more are planned), which kind of left me cold.  It's not like F9 is without its cockamamie pleasures (people see these films for the fights, the action, the car chases, and so forth) and this one is a grand vehicle (sorry, again) for delivering sequences that literally go past the stratosphere of comic parody at this point.  Lin's sequel delivers on juiced up craziness, to be sure, but it rarely feels genuinely gripping considering the (here comes that word again) family stakes involved.  I'll defend the F&F films by saying that very few franchises are able to sustain themselves after a few installments, but this one has.  In point of fact, it wonderfully reinvented itself with FAST FIVE at time when most franchises die, which is thankless and deserves credit.  But the muster of these films is starting to wane.  In my last F&F review I stated that the series has not so much run out of gas, but is just stalling.  Now, it's more of the former.  After the somewhat disappointing THE FATE AND THE FURIOUS and now the equally mixed bagged F9 it might be time for Dom and his buddies to park their cars in the garage and call it a day...or in one rocket packed car's case...come back down to earth and land safely and move on.   

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