A few months ago, ahead of this week’s launch of Fast 9, I began pulling myself out of the wreckage that was the COVID-19 pandemic by going to… let’s all say it with Vin Diesel’s emphasis… the moo-vies. I cite Diesel because my 2021 moviegoing spree began with Fast Fridays, a free once-a-week opportunity to relive his massive The Fast & The Furious oeuvre on the big screen.
Over the years, I’d never felt the need to become Fast in theaters or catch up with a growing pile of Furiosity on VOD and streaming services. But the idea of riding with the entire series in theaters, once a week, as a newly vaccinated member of society, itching for something to safely do outside my home? Especially as a fun alternative to the somber, straight-to-streaming likes of the Snyder Cut? Sure, brah.
This differed from my colleague Peter Opaskar’s 2019 experiment, which saw him shotgun the full series on his couch over the course of two days. I arguably had a much better time, as my once-a-week pacing helped me savor the films’ shameless constructions. I’ve never seen a film series do a better job stringing together such artfully crafted stupidity over so many hours, all aided by scripts full of big heart, and action sequences full of sensational practical effects.
Eight weeks and nine films later, I’d turned into a guy with F&F expectations. I’d teared up about the films adapting to the real-life tragedy of series star Paul Walker passing away. I began coming up with MST3K-style jokes about the characters’ obsessions with Corona Lite. I’d grown to genuinely like Tyrese as a comedic actor. I bristled at the stumbles of 2019’s spin-off film Hobbs & Shaw (“This isn’t familia,” I truly said out loud). And I loved seeing so many very, very nice cars go zoom, boom, and kapow for the purpose of my amusement.
Tantalizing brah-canon, at a cost
I’m confident that my bias had some impact on how I cheered, laughed, and groaned through the whopping 2 hour 27 minute runtime of Fast 9, which I saw ahead of its domestic release this Friday, June 25. But even I could see this sequel’s glaring issues through my Stock-racing-holm syndrome.
If you’re looking for sheer action-movie spectacle and can stomach some of the series’ worst logical stretches (which, for F&F, is saying something) to connect each frenetic car chase and fist fight, you’ll be right at home. And if you’re familiar with the series’ cast and back story, you can expect some tantalizing brah-canon completions. But watching Fast 9 feels like getting season tickets to a sports team’s “rebuilding” year long after they’d won the world championship, and the result will be a tough watch for anyone who has never seen one of these films before.
My issue largely boils down to the writing, which, to some of you, might seem like reviewing the cleanliness of a table at a McDonald’s. But this sequel’s writers were clearly in over their heads, as they were tasked with keeping a massive cast of existing characters together while introducing a pair of new villains and bringing at least one major series character back. (Those writers include Justin Lin, who is also in the director’s chair for his fifth F&F film.)
Another Death Star—this time, with spinner rims
The series began in 2001 as a “car culture” excuse to race a quarter-mile at a time and engage in petty crime, and each film sought to ramp up the stakes: bigger heists, bigger investigations, and bigger surprise-twists where heroes and villains swapped places. These days, the franchise’s characters have a reputation as the world’s foremost not-very-secret agents, able to drive into any mastermind’s plot and foil it whilst drifting.
For some ridiculous reason, the Fast 9 writing team felt compelled to maintain a chain of believable, even-bigger-bad guys and girls. The resulting plot, which Fast 9 spends way too much time explaining and clarifying, feels like the car version of Darth Vader building another Death Star. (In F&F terminology, we’re in “God’s Eye” territory again. Yawn.)
Yet the film itself suggests that it could have revolved around a leaner, back-to-basics conflict: one between longtime series lead Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and a former colleague-turned-villain from his teenage racing days, Jakob (John Cena). Fast 9‘s flashback sequences show teen versions of these characters facing off in ways that recall the focused, cars-and-family stuff that pumped surprising heart into a street-racing motif. I’m a fan of how teen-Diesel and teen-Cena turned out, honestly, and wouldn’t mind seeing more of their teen-angst burn up future films’ roads.
In order to connect those compelling flashback sequences to a modern-day excuse to blow stuff up real good, however, Jakob emerges as a petulant, sullen superspy with zero charisma or compelling interactions. Fast 9 weights Cena’s bulky shoulders with two villains at his side: the very punchable face of an egotistical rich brat (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) who funds Jakob’s efforts and the return of F8‘s overwrought hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron). The film never offers a good answer to why Jakob bonded with either of these heels, and their cheesy bad-guy energy, while laughable, feels unnecessary. In execution, every time the camera moves from Dom’s crew to Jakob’s, the fun and energy gets sucked out of the theater.
The core cast hits on all cylinders
I’ve seen Cena absolutely slay in terms of physical comedy and snappy dialogue timing, and I got my hopes up that he would add new, subversive bravado—complete with his signature wink and smile—to fill the gap left by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson skipping this entry. But Fast 9 doesn’t budget Cena enough time to bounce off of the film’s established, charismatic players. If we’d seen him contend with Tyrese’s silliness or Michelle Rodriguez’s wooden-yet-electrifying motivational speeches, then he might have been more fun to watch.
Forget Hobbs & Shaw. These two have the repartee, the heart, and the camaraderie.
Most of the returning protagonists hit their marks, at least. Diesel and Rodriguez cheesily weigh their newfound lives as parents with their heritage as adrenaline junkies. Jordana Brewster and Nathalie Emmanuel finally step up from their previously meek roles to fight and drive in their best F&F action performances yet. And Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Tyrese, whose characters had playfully sparred in past films, have transitioned into an official series pairing. Forget 2019’s Hobbs & Shaw. These two have the repartee, the heart, and the camaraderie that I want to see in a spin-off film—and one that could very well benefit from escaping the mainline series’ increasingly bonkers stakes.
In the case of one major returning character, however, those same stakes wear him down in a way that feels more like a fan-service check mark. The character in question famously kept his cool in prior films in a way that the rest of the cast bounced off of. That’s lost here—and it’s yet another symptom of Fast 9‘s writers not necessarily understanding how to stitch the series’ dumb plots and dialogue together.
Practical effects (mostly) save the day
In very good news, Fast 9‘s fast cars, big booms, and increasingly zany sequences mostly rely on practical effects. It’s easy to spot a few exceptions, where clearly faked rows of cars bounce around in a cheap, CGI-rendered mess, but for the most part, Fast 9 spends its massive budget on believable bombast.
Without spoiling anything, the final sequence is an excuse to slam real cars together up and down busy streets. It’s a brand-new gimmick in the action film universe. The filmmakers double down on the sequence with gorgeous long shots, instead of fast-cutting the hell out of it. And the results rank up there with F5‘s breathtaking bridge-driving showdown.
By the way, that’s only one half of the film’s climax. The other half revolves around a modified Pontiac Fiero, and you can probably imagine what it would take for such a mid-’80s throwback to merit inclusion in a F&F action sequence. It joins the series’ usual rainbow of sensational, gas-guzzling beasts, including Dom’s switch to a modified 1968 Charger, a drift-filled frenzy courtesy of a Noble M600, and a tanks-jeeps-and-bikes romp through a massive field of landmines, because… why not.
The good parts of Fast 9 are enough to live up to the usual series expectations at this point: the action is somehow bigger than last time, and the people pulling it off work together with a believable amount of heart, pride, and loyalty. Diesel remains the series’ rock (pun intended), and whether a scene calls for grit or goofiness, he’s on it like go-fast stripes on a muscle car.
But if you’ve never seen a F&F film, you’ll miss out on the fan-service bits that make up for this sequel’s bloat and failings, all while watching the filmmakers clearly set the series up for its “mainline conclusion” (currently set to wrap up with two more sequels). There’s fun to be had here, and the results are better than Hobbs & Shaw. But make your peace with this return to theaters merely being a good F&F entry, not the best yet.
Listing image by Universal Pictures