Director: Justin Lin | Screenwriter: Daniel Casey, Justin Lin | Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, John Cena, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang, Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron | Distributor: Universal Pictures | Running Time: 145 min. | MPAA Rating: PG-13
There comes a point in the ninth entry in the Fast & Furious saga when one of the characters questions the impractical nature of action-based work where they rarely bleed or become seriously injured. The easily paranoid Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) brings this up several times and the cocky hacker Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) will either brush it off as delusional or merely stare in amazement at Roman’s luck, at one point muttering “How are you not dead?” It seemed like ample time in the series to prove this theory wrong by having one of the characters meet an unfortunate end, which is not foreign for these movies. But, hey, why mess with success? In fact, this film even revives characters from the dead, making the stakes all the more arbitrary.
I’m under no illusion that the Fast & Furious saga is built specifically for the wildest of car chases and stunts. The ninth entry certainly doesn’t disappoint in this aspect either. Cars are flung about with the use of ridiculously high-powered magnets, as though the cars are now armed with that gravity gun from Half-Life 2. We even get to witness the next frontier that most fans theorized the franchise was headed next: Space! But are the films really that fun when they’ve become that predictable? Even the fascinating assembly of magnet-based car chases with physics-defying absurdities pretty much becomes par for the course. There’s a scene where the heroes have to stop the big bad truck by using magnets to send every car present flying to the vehicle. And didn’t we just see a swarm of zombie cars in the last film? Maybe it’s just the fatigue of the series but it really does seem to be repeating itself, where even the moment of a car swinging like Tarzan through the jungle is more on-brand than a surprise.
For a series that likes to state it’s all about family, I was surprised at the lack of family in this entry. On paper, it sounds as though it would have the most familiar elements. The story concerns Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) combatting his vengeful brother, Jakob Toretto (John Cena), who was somehow not worth mentioning up until this point in the series. Their history leads back to 1989 where Jakob sabotages their father’s racing car, leading to a fiery end for their patriarch of the family. This leads to Dominic heading to prison after getting violent and Jakob fleeing in rage, his daddy issues still unresolved. Jakob’s return is highlighted by his desire for power and to prove he’s a big man, I guess, since daddy wouldn’t give him a hug.
That’s some decent Shakesperean staging but it’s unfortunately given the same air as soap opera. Jakob’s betrayal of Dominic is treated with shock but seemingly forgiven early when it’s convenient for Jakob to ditch his dime-store billionaire benefactor. John Cena is welcomed far too easily into the family and Dominic’s hatred for his brother being a catalyst for his descent into a dangerous lifestyle is swept under the rug easily. I can understand this quick alliance when they’re fighting atop cars and trying to prevent your standard world domination plot but is it too much to ask to let this brotherly rivalry breathe?
It pains me to mention that Fast & Furious has succumbed to sequitis by simply including too much in this picture, especially considering how much of the cast had been pruned. Charlize Theron returns as Cipher but has so little to do as the villain who mostly hangs back to let the one-note billionaire bad boy pretend he has the situation handled. Sung Kang returns to the role of Han but his explanation as to how he averted death in Furious 7 has all the stagings of a soap-opera style I-was-in-a-coma reveal. Kurt Russell comes back as Mr. Nobody and acts as little more than a minor herald. Helen Mirren also briefly returns as Magdalene “Queenie” Shaw in a role that’s about as useful as Michael Caine in a Christopher Nolan film. There’s also a trio of scientists that develop cars with rockets. I suppose it would be a treat that Shaw (Jason Statham) shows up in the mid-credit sequence but it just comes off as too much in a film that has so little time for anything. Did I mention there’s a brief Cardi B cameo where she plays a character for one scene we’re expected to know Dom has a history with?
I would write about Dom’s relationship with his son who has grown quite a bit since the last film when he was a mere baby. Sadly, the kid is treated strictly as a bookend character, meant to be something Dom will fight for but not acknowledge past being a vessel to receive his teachings and wisdom. I’m not saying we needed to see exactly who Dom left his child with to venture off on another globe-trotting mission but compare this staging to previous FF entries, where family always felt more present with higher stakes. The films would occasionally pull away from the action to highlight what the characters are fighting for but the most we’ll get from F9 is a trippy life-flashes-before-my-eyes vision of Dom’s family.
The Fast & Furious franchise hasn’t crashed and burned with F9 but it’s not exactly blazing new trails either. The films have fallen into an unfortunate pattern of increasing the family aspects, the giddy goofing, and the over-the-top stunts that it feels as though this saga has plateaued with its appeal. For those seeking such a film for the big stunts and fight scenes, you’ll get them here, no question. But if you’re hoping for something more out of this long-running franchise, you may be dismayed at just how much of this film is placed on cruise control.