If 20 years ago you told someone that two decades people would be rapturously awaiting the next Fast and Furious film entry, they’d laugh. Yet, what started off simply as a riff on Point Break, trading surfboards for souped-up cars, has evolved into a global juggernaut. Rivaling the success rate of superhero films. A series where literally anything and everything is possible, short of superpowers existing (though the meta-comedy does skirt that line). F9, yes the ninth film in this ever-growing series, may not love up the lofty expectations of the last entry, but it’s one of the most entertaining summer movies in a long time.
It’s a herculean task to try and recap the previous 8 films, setting the stage for F9. To the point where you think the movie itself would try and do so. Not here. If you’ve made it to the point where you’re watching this movie, you’re either emotionally invested or willing to just go along with the ride. The same goes for attempting to summarize the events of F9. With or without spoilers.
So much happens in this film that trying to describe it would make your head spin. And spin. And spin. A quarter-mile at a time. Suffice to say Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), a tough “family” man with a panache for taking in strays and saving the day, finds himself at a crossroad. After trotting around the globe and surviving improbably situations, he wants to settle down with his son Brian Jr. and love of life Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Yet, as often goes when you’re on top, the past has a way of catching up with you. In this case, it’s the form of Dom’s younger brother, Jakob (John Cena). Well, him, a returning Cipher (Charlize Theron), a magical world altering device and some of the biggest magnets you’ve ever seen. Oh and Han (Sung Kang) is back. Plus, the fam finally takes cars where everyone has wanted for years now.
If after 8 previous entries it seems odd that it’s never been revealed that Dom or Mia (Jordana Brewster) had another sibling, don’t worry F9 has you covered. By doling out flashback after flashback, every 15 minutes or so, to fill in the gaps. The inclusion isn’t necessarily a detriment, it just feels as if it were cobbled together from an unreleased “Toretto: Origins” prequel film. Each time a new flashback crops up it manages to break whatever tension came before. In a film as overstuffed as this one, that starts to take its toll.
Thankfully on the other side of the litany of flashbacks, is the Fast & Furious of old. Or at least the Fast films since Fast Five. That entry placed a focus on fun, stunts, and the core cast that helped elevate it to mega status. The hallmarks are all here to keep the fans happy. Roman (Tyrese Gibson) is hungry and a bit skittish. The action set pieces are things of creative and logic-defying wonder. Cars are crammed into every situation, to stay true to the series’ roots. While all of that is great and during on all cylinders, F9 can’t help but feel like a step back overall.
Call it fatigue or a crisis of personality, but this is a film split down the middle. At different points oscillating between “the most movie ever made” and “self-serious piece of drama”. Given the past success, you’d be forgiven for thinking those two things going head-to-head would be part of the magic. Instead, it ends making things feel like a slog occasionally. The blame, if there has to be a place to sling it, falls on Diesel’s broad shoulders. Though the central plot hangs on the beef between Dom and Jakob, that’s also exactly what holds it back.
The other really strange element at work in F9, comes from the editing. Normally, with the speed of the action that could easily be overlooked. What happens here is a bit different. The last several Fast & Furious films have found themselves being granted an “extended cut” on home video. Each one proving to be more popular than the last. As great as that may be, the effect can now be felt in the theatrical experience. Conversations feel cut off in the middle. Characters reference earlier scenes that are never shown. Not enough instances are present to derail the film as a whole, but their presence is felt nonetheless. If you’re investing in a 140-minute runtime, to begin with, your audience is more than likely willing to sit through another dozen minutes, to see the whole package.
A movie like F9 is intrinsically easy to nitpick from afar. It doesn’t and hasn’t ever attempted to comply with the normal rules and stakes of cinema. That’s what’s always made it so much fun. The more ridiculous it gets, the better. Justin Lin understands this in the goodies character beats and stunning stunt extravaganza that will make audiences beam whenever things whiz across the screen. Unfortunately, it wants to have its cake and eat it too, doubling down on dramatic bits that either slow things down or will elicit unwanted chuckles. The two clashing sides make for a frustrating, yet immensely entertaining time. That much should be a given when Helen Mirren can get around London in an expensive supercar. More of that in the next movie and everything else will be right as rain.