There is a telling scene that happens in the middle of F9, the latest installment of the Fast & Furious franchise that feels really telling to me. Not surprisingly, it involves racing.
Dominic Toretto (played in flashback by Vinnie Bennett) has just gotten out of prison and has a score to settle. And you just know he’s gonna settle it with a car race. As the race comes to an end, Dom’s competition turns on his nitro to give him a boost and Toretto shakes his head and just says, “Too soon.”
This seems to be the mantra of filmmaker Justin Lin, who is back as director for the fourth time in the F&F saga. Lin is a skilled director, and gave us Fast Five, the best film in this franchise. Lin knows how to put his best set piece last, which would seem easy but is, apparently, harder than you would think. F. Gary Gray, the skilled director who helmed The F8 Of The Furious ends his film with a lot of action and fun, but it just wasn’t as cool as the New York City chase that also featured cars falling out of a second-story parking garage. And James Wan gave us lots to love with F7 (the second-best of the group), but he ends the film with, arguably, the most boring chase in the film. Lin is back and he does not make that mistake, but F9 had me leaving the film with two big questions:
How could this skilled director who has given us so many of the best moments in this franchise make the worst film in the Fast & Furious series?
And if this is the worst film in the franchise, how come it’s still a pretty damn good movie?
Let’s get this out of the way: this is the first “Fancy Boys Go To The Movies” in over 15 months and I’m fucking jacked about that.
The last movie I saw inside of a theater was 2020’s Birds Of Prey, which left me underwhelmed (though a subsequent viewing did warm me up to it more), but I haven’t been back since then and I’ve missed it. If you’ve read my reviews, you’ll know that I have called this column “Fancy Boys Stay Home With The Movies” and while I’m glad to have enjoyed a lot of great flicks, I needed all of the things I love about seeing a movie on the big screen. I didn’t care that I had to watch trailers for Space Jam: A New Legacy and Sing 2 and Snake Eyes. I didn’t mind that even though there were only eight people in the theater, they had the air conditioning cranked up like there were 800 of us. I didn’t mind spending a week’s salary on tickets and concessions.
I got to take my son to the movies.
And that was fucking awesome.
The concept of plot is not something which is the most important thing in the Fast & Furious films, and F9 is a prime example of that. The studio and filmmakers are more worried about things such as, “Is this movie cool?” and “How can we make Vin Diesel seem even more like Superman?” Story just always seems to fall by the wayside. However, let’s do a brief, spoiler-free synopsis because it will help explain what I liked (and didn’t like) about the film:
The team (composed of Dom (Vin Diesel), his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), sister Mia (Jordanna Brewster) and non-relatives Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson and Nathalie Emmanuel) are trying to get their hands on… a thing that does… something. Honestly, it’s the literal definition of a mcguffin. I don’t even think the screenwriters care about what this thing is, but it’s super-important. Also trying to find this thing is bad guy Otto (Thad Ersted Rasmussen) who has a secret weapon up his sleeve in the form of Dom and Mia’s estranged brother Jakob, played by John Cena.
That’s it. That’s the plot.
There are a lot of things that work about F9, but perhaps the most surprising of them all is Tyrese Gibson.
It shouldn’t be surprising. Gibson is a good actor and has always been fun in these films. However, after his initial appearance in 2 Fast 2 Furious, his character, Roman Pearce, has kind of been relegated to wisecracking buffoon. He is often the one whom the team needs to go out of their way to help and is the only one who hasn’t really evolved with the films.
Since his first appearance in the franchise, every member of the cast with the notable exception of Gibson has become almost superhuman in what they can accomplish. Vin Diesel started this series as a simple racer and petty thief (in the first film, he is on the run for stealing trailers of DVD players) and, now, he is the greatest racer and apparent a man who can, literally, bring a building down around him by pulling hard enough on chains. Rodriguez is now a martial arts badass. Brewster is somehow both a computer expert AND a martial arts badass. Ludacris is now one of the greatest hackers in the world, an amazing feat considering that in his first appearance in the series (2 Fast) he is just running a garage and never speaks of being good with computers. Perhaps he took some night classes in-between the second and fifth movies.
But Gibson is the only one who has become less cool as the series has moved forward. Roman Pearce went from being a tough ex-con trying to clear his name to a guy who might as well be wearing clown makeup sometimes. So it was really nice to see that, in F9, Gibson is given the most to do. And, for the most part, he’s wildly effective.
Yes, he is able to be comedic and he also looks the part in the action and driving sequences. We knew he could do this. But what was really impressive was how effective he was being asked to play the role of audience surrogate. He’s the guy who need to point out just how ridiculous every situation is and just how superhuman everyone seems. These films HAVE gotten ridiculous; we’ve all been thinking it. But Gibson is the only person in this entire franchise to give that thought a voice and do so while still making the situations feel as real as they can. It kind of bums me out that these movies haven’t used him more, because he has shown that he can deliver.
You cannot talk about a Fast & Furious movie without talking about Vin Diesel, but I cannot think about him in this movie without thinking a much sadder thought: I miss Paul Walker and I never appreciated how good he was in these films until watching F9.
Walker, who died during the making of Fast 7, was always played as the counter to Diesel. His Brian O’Conner was a little more unsure of himself as he loved his fancy imports, while Toretto lived by his code of family and American muscle cars. I never thought Walker was a particularly great actor; the dude had a smile that could light up a movie house, but I never saw a performance that made me want to see every film he was in. He always seems like the second fiddle in these films. However, he is desperately missed in F9, and the reason is because we are missing the one thing he really gave Brian: humanity.
As Diesel has used these films to show everyone what a hulking behemoth he is, Walker was the guy who was living in the real life. Sure, Brian would win his fights, but he would also get punched a whole bunch of times on the way to that happening. He wasn’t the guy who always won the race (unless it was because Dom let him win) or knew what to do. He was just a guy. And that’s needed.
Without Brian, more screen time has to be given to Dom, and it’s been made very clear that Vin Diesel cannot lose a race or a fight, so don’t even fucking suggest it. It goes back to the question people often have about the Justice League: if you have Superman, why do you need anyone else? And if there’s someone strong enough to beat Superman, what good is fucking Aquaman going to be against him?
2017’s The Fate Of The Furious is able to solve this issue by turning Dom into the person who the team has to come together to try and stop (Toretto is being forced to do bad things by Cipher, played by Charlize Theron, who has his infant son hostage), and that film is fun and effective because we get to see Diesel switch roles and put on the black hat and, yes, even lose the occasional skirmish though always winning the war. But here, in F9, he returns to the role of strongest man and fastest driver. I actually thought it would have been funny if he had a “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug in an opening scene. And that means someone has to balance him out, and it can’t be any of the good guys. As much as I like this crew, none of them are given the chance to do so in this script, written by Lin and Justin Casey. Also, absent from this film are Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, who were too busy making their own Fast & Furious spinoff at the time, 2019’s Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw. So, we have to look at the bad guys.
John Cena’s Jakob seems like the obvious choice, because the idea of a man who lives by a code of family having an estranged brother seeking revenge is an exciting concept. But this film’s second biggest flaw (more on that later) is how much Cena is wasted in this movie. The WWE superstar has shown that he is a great actor, specifically in 2018’s Blockers, where he really commits to the role and gives a comedic performance so solid and funny, that it’s easy to forget the fact that he is build like a goddamned semi truck. In fact, Cena is a more effective actor in his comedic turns (Trainwreck jumps immediately to mind) then when he’s asked just to be a tough dude. But all this movie wants him to do is be a menacing foil, and that means he isn’t used well at all. And this is crazy, because why wouldn’t you want your main villain to be charming and charismatic?
Also, it’s not just that he’s being used wrong, but we never really get to see a fun scene of how tough he is. I assume you cast John Cena because you want to see a Cena/Diesel brawl much like when Vin fought the Rock in Fast Five, but we don’t get anything close to that in this movie. Cena snears a lot, and we see him drive, but we rarely see him fight and that is insanely frustrating.
Because of this, the closest thing that F9 has to a compelling villain is Charlize Theron, who returns here. Out of this entire cast, Theron is the only real capital-A Actor, and that allows her to just absolutely chew the fucking scenery out of her scenes. She is such a good actress, in fact, that she is immediately memorable despite the fact that she is in less than 10% of the film.
Furthermore, Theron and Vin Diesel don’t have any scenes together. So, there’s a lot riding on Dom to be the emotional center of the film, which is problematic because I’m not sure Diesel knows how to bring vulnerability to this character. Honestly, he shows more humanity in the Guardian Of The Galaxy films, which is interesting because that is a voice performance where he only says three words and plays a tree.
But there’s another really big problem in this movie.
With a run time of almost two and a half hours, F9 is the second-longest film in the franchise, losing only to The Fate Of The Furious by a scant four minutes. For films that are supposed to be about speed and living life a quarter-mile at a time, it seems easy to find the irony.
A big reason for this film’s bloated length is the amount of time it takes to find its emotional center. A large chunk of this movie is spent in backstory talking about Dom, Jakob and their father (played by J.D. Pardo), a stock car racer who dies on the track. When I was in the theater, I assumed these flashbacks would take up 5 minutes AT MOST, and then I saw they cast Michael Rooker in what should have been a minimal role, playing a character with no credited last name. And I think I know what Lin is going for here.
The earlier films work because they balance the action with some legitimate dramatic moments and focus on what is important to Dom, Brian, Mia and Letty. Yeah, they all race, but the earlier films do a really nice job taking a moment to establish why they race. And I think F9 is trying to have its cake and eat it too by trying to return some of the touching moments to a franchise where emotion has been abandoned by the wayside.
The only problem is that it doesn’t really work.
The dialogue and flashback performances are all fine, but the series has almost gotten too loud for moments like these. These sequences work when you’re stealing DVDs or $150k (as they were in 2 Fast), but when you’re worried about the fate of the world, it’s hard to care about why two brothers don’t like each other. Also, when Diesel is supposed to have a big revelatory moment in the film, it’s hard not to chuckle at it because it comes at the end of such a bonkers action sequence. So instead of trying to gather some of the magic of the older films, all that’s really happening is that the film is just becoming too long for no real reason.
All that said, F9 is fun and cool.
The opening and closing set pieces take you for the insane whirlwind rides that Tyrese finds so insane, and Lin is a master at making these exciting and fun. There are also real moments of emotion, specifically when everyone welcomes Han (Sung Kang), long thought dead, back into the group. Lin, Diesel and company hit a few speed bumps along the way, and those are noticeable, but there are also enough moments where they’re allowed to just slam their feet down on the gas, open up the nitrous, and have us sit next to them on a thrilling ride. F9 is not going to get nominated for Best Picture. But, after a year and a half, we could all use a good summer blockbuster in our lives. F9 is a really nice reason to get to the theater.