By Valerie Kalfrin
Helen Mirren looks gleeful in her few moments in “F9: The Fast Saga.”
“Get the e-brake for me, would you?” she says, driving a Noble M600 away from a London jewelry store with the cops hot on her tail. They want the emerald and diamond necklace she lifted moments earlier that looks oh-so-chic with her white outfit and zebra-patterned boots.
Vin Diesel, in the passenger seat as street racer turned operative Dominic Toretto, is happy to oblige. He hits the brake while Mirren’s Magdalene “Queenie” Shaw spins the wheel, turning the British sports car 180 degrees.
Over 20 years and nine films, the “Fast & Furious” franchise has done a few one-eighties, too. Inspired by a 1998 Vibe article about street racing, it’s evolved from low-level heists involving DVD players, semis, and harpoons to James Bond-level comfort-food spectacles that cheerfully defy logic and gravity.
A few things that haven’t changed? The series’ progressive attitude about race, and the male characters’ trust in their favorite women and their abilities.
Granted, it’s not perfect. The world of “The Fast and the Furious” still has plenty of nameless women in short shorts, miniskirts, or bikinis who dance in the background, wave to racers at the starting line, or exist for close-ups of derrieres. (F9” has the least of those but does include a crowd of shimmying women in white at a party where Queenie drops Dom.)
At least two of the women in Dom’s tight-knit group over the years have been held hostage as a plot device, and the series’ found family at times resembles a soap opera of who loves whom and who has amnesia. Before becoming Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot featured in three films as an ex-Mossad agent and team weapons expert. She takes aim at sexist comments, saunters in a bikini to extract information, and later dies protecting her boyfriend, Han (Sung Kang).
Yet much like Mirren in “F9,” the original 2001 film put its female characters — Michelle Rodriguez as Dom’s girlfriend, Letty Ortiz, and Jordana Brewster as his sister, Mia Toretto — in the driver’s seat. In fact, Brewster recalls that Rodriguez’s input changed Letty’s character considerably from the version on the page: “It went from a trophy girlfriend to this really layered character.”
Letty races, tells Dom to chill out by giving her a massage, fearlessly jumps onto moving vehicles, and throws punches. Over nine films, she and Dom have gotten married, dodged bullets, and driven circles around anyone chasing them, trusting each to save the other’s life.
Mia at first stayed out of her brother’s shady dealings; yet whenever she landed behind the wheel, she could drive as well as Dom and foe-turned-friend Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker). By 2011’s “Fast Five,” Mia not only embraces life on the lam — and a relationship with Brian — but proves to be a skilled hacker, helping Dom, Brian, and their pals coordinate a $100 million heist.
She’s a mother of two by “F9,” but she leaves Brian with the kids after Letty tells her that her long-lost brother, Jakob (John Cena), is alive and clashing with Dom and friends. (Walker died in 2013, but the series has kept his character alive off-screen.) Letty might find peace in chaos, as she confides to Mia over street food in Tokyo, but Mia doesn’t run from it, matching Letty in close-quarter fighting skills and reaching over the front of a speeding vehicle to keep a loved one from falling.
Another woman with agency in “F9” is Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), the hacker and activist who joined the crew in 2015’s “Furious 7. ” Ramsey trades quips with teammates Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) while coordinating their logistics. She also finds herself the only one free to chase one of Jakob’s cronies at a pivotal moment, even though this city gal never got her driver’s license. She fortunately figures out the automatic transmission, along with the high-powered magnets aboard the truck that she commandeers. (Don’t ask.)
Oscar-winner Charlize Theron doesn’t get a lot of screen time in F9,” but she returns from 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious” as Cipher, a cyberterrorist and cool mastermind who wanted the various gizmos the team pursued in previous films. Rapper Cardi B (“Hustlers”) even drops by as a thief leading a team of women who lends Dom a hand.
As for Mirren, the series introduced the Oscar winner in “The Fate of the Furious” as the mother of Jason Statham’s character, mercenary Deckard Shaw. A franchise fan, Mirren, 75, says she loved playing “this sort of tough matriarchal, powerful woman who had to make her own way in life, and has always done it slightly on the dodgy side. As we say in England, ducking and diving, but with great strength and great character and intelligence.”
As it turns out, Queenie also has precision driving skills and charm that Dom finds irresistible — and why not? As the marvelous Mirren points out, guys aren’t the only ones with a need for speed or to see themselves taking control.
“I love cars … but I think the strength of the female characters for me is another great reason to be in the franchise,” she says. “I love film franchises that have really authentic, good, strong female roles. The next generation of girls need to see that — and they are beginning to.”
Trust us: Older women love seeing that, too.