We've come to expect implausible, over-the-top ridiculousness in the "Fast & Furious" movies...heck, we almost rely on it.
But with "F9," the franchise is dealt a critical blow in that it forgets to be fun. Yes, in a film series where it is completely acceptable for cars to jump from skyscraper to skyscraper, where the laws of physics and all beliefs are permanently suspended, where men and women have perfected the ability to leap unscathed from exploding vehicles, "F9" is the first chapter that feels tired, uninspired, lazy and most egregiously of all for a "Fast & Furious" film, stuck in second gear.
This is the ninth installment in what is now considered to be an 11-part series, and there is rust around the edges, with serious signs of wear and tear starting to be visible. Through eight previous films though, the "Fast & Furious" movies have grossed nearly 6 BILLION dollars worldwide, making it one of the most popular and successful film franchises of all-time. This is now the third movie made without Paul Walker, the original co-star who tragically died in - ironically - a high-speed car crash during filming of "Fast & Furious 7." His character, Brian O'Conner was written off as having retired from the game of drag racing and fighting worldwide criminals.
"F9" begins with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) now living a domesticated life with his new wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their small son, Brian (awwww). That tranquility hardly lasts one scene, because his old gang - Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) - show up on his doorstep and need his help. It appears that Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) has been attacked while transporting the criminal mastermind from the previous film, Cipher (Charlize Theron). In a distress call from Mr. Nobody, Dom realizes that the hijacker is none other than his younger brother, Jakob Toretto (newcomer to the franchise, John Cena), who has a tumultuous past with Dom. Because it's a family affair, Dom and Jakob's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) rejoins the group.
Because dying in this franchise is almost always temporary, this film also includes the long-awaited return of fan-favorite, Han (Sung Kang), who somehow survived his fiery crash, and was last seen in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," the third film in the series. Also returning from "Tokyo Drift" is that film's protagonist, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), who is tasked with hooking up a rocket jet to a Pontiac Fiero so that Tej and Roman can launch it into space (yes, really).
It's hard for this film to propel the series forward when its very plot is stuck squarely in the past. With "family" always being a major theme, the majority of the film focuses on the relationship between Dom and his newly-surfaced brother, Jakob. The problem is that John Cena is one of the most boring and flat villains that these films have ever produced. Most, like Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), are at least tuned-in to the cheesiness of the franchise. Cena's Jakob is way too serious, and opposite Diesel's reliably terrible, stiff acting, it just doesn't play well.
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Nobody has ever been attracted to these movies for the plot, so it's not worth criticizing how thinly-drawn it is. However instead of approaching scenes as trying to make cool stunt or action sequences that may exhilarate its fan-base, the writers instead seem intent on pushing the implausibility envelope further and further. There is a line between stupid-fun and insulting, and "F9" puts itself well into the insulting category. In addition to Tej and Roman launching themselves in a car into space, they also crash it into a satellite and return home without a scratch. Elsewhere, Dom somehow runs his car off a cliff, knowing that a cable would get caught up in its tires which then swings it Tarzan-style back to safety. To say that "F9" is the closest we'll come to a live-action cartoon is fully accurate. I would not be surprised if Wile E. Coyote joined the gang in a future installment.
If the film felt remotely "fun," all would be forgiven, as they have been for the past eight films. But "F9" is a slog. Somehow, these movies keep getting a pass...just because they realize that their film is dumb I guess gives the filmmakers license to continue to insult their audience. Even the usually hysterical (sometimes purposely and sometimes not) dialogue and interchanges between the characters seems painful this time around. Roman and Tej, for example, try desperately to bring "comic relief" to the proceedings, but are cringe-worthy at best...why not at least have their space mission end in real sacrifice?
The entire franchise could benefit from some real stakes, but in a world where characters come back to life on a whim, we're probably way past the point of redemption. "F9" takes familiar ingredients from the previous films, shakes up the bottle and lets them explode all over the screen. But no care is shown in creating something fresh or new. We've now had nine of these movies - NINE! - and the wheels are about to fall off. With the end (reportedly) in sight, let's hope that the future of the "Fast & Furious" films has the foresight to look under the hood and tries to figure out what made this chapter such a lemon.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Crime.
Run Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes.
Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, John Cena, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Charlize Theron, Lucas Black, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Sung Kang.
Directed by Justin Lin ("Star Trek Beyond," "Fast & Furious 6," "Fast Five," "Fast & Furious").
"F9" is in theaters everywhere on Friday, June 25th, 2021.
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