Runtime: 143 minutes
Director: Justin Lin
Writers: Daniel Casey, Justin Lin, Alfredo Botello
Actors: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Charlize Theron, John Cena, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Sung Kang
By Caelyn O’Reilly
** Spoiler Alert: There are spoilers in the review below. If you haven’t seen “F9” yet, please be aware major plot points will be discussed.**
I have been waiting so long for this movie.
During the Great-Stay-Indoors-Time of 2020 (and now 2021) everyone had some event that got delayed – from concerts to weddings and so on – some were smaller than others, but the year-long delay to the release of the ninth “Fast and Furious” movie may have been one of the most insignificant. But it was mine. I was honestly kinda broken up about it. A few years ago I became a huge fan of the series through a video by film YouTuber Patrick Willems. I fell in love with these silly movies; I got the Blu Ray box set and watched it front-to-back multiple times. Like any fan of the series, I have my own ranking (6>5>7>3>2>1>8>Hobbs and Shaw>4). Where does this film fall on that ranking? Well you’ll have to read to the end of the review to find out 😉
I got so hyped up in the lead up to the planned original release of the ninth main entry. I lived in Edinburgh at the time of filming and was able to see the filming of a stunt just off Princes Street every day on the way to and from work (it did make travel an absolute delay-filled nightmare, but it was worth it to me). The trailer only got me more hyped; director Justin Lin was returning, Han (Sung Kang) – beloved series character who died in the third film – was alive, John Cena was joining the cast as Dom’s (Vin Diesel) secret evil long-lost brother! How could this film be anything but amazing?! And so I waited… and waited… and waited. Was it worth the wait?
Wellllllll…. it’s complicated.
A lot of people have dismissed the “Fast and Furious” franchise as dumb car movies for meatheads. And they are. But they’re BRILLIANT dumb car movies for meatheads. At their best they are hyper-macho action soap operas with an emphasis on practical stuntwork, bringing to life action scenes that feel like the best version of a 12-year-old’s imagination while playing with their Hot Wheels. The series infamously took five films to finally find this niche, trying for four entries to stick largely to street racing. The fifth, sixth and seventh entries in this series are genuinely masterful, with the sixth as its peak. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) returns from her death in the fourth film with amnesia and she’s working with the bad guys who are evil doppelgangers of the protagonists and Dom has to bring her back to the light side through the power of racing. And in the mid-credits sequence we return to the crash that killed Han in “Tokyo Drift”(2006) (which 4, 5 and 6 were all prequels to) and it turns out the guy who ran him down is Jason Statham who’s playing the brother of the villain from the film you just saw. It’s pure comic book melodrama and it is glorious. But the series started to move in more generic directions, particularly with the double-bill of “Fate of the Furious” (2017) and the spin-off “Hobbs and Shaw” (2019). The addition of an all-powerful government handler character in Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody and an increasing narrative focus on chasing down techy MacGuffins capable of destroying an entire city or country or the world or whatever made these later films into diet “Mission Impossible”. And The Rock’s expanding presence bringing his increasingly rigid filmic personality and wink-to-the-audience self-awareness had made these films feel like every other movie he’s starred in for the past five years. So, with his absence in this ninth entry and the return of 5 and 6 director Justin Lin, I was hoping for a return to form. And I got it, partly.
Justin Lin’s return is easy to celebrate, he directed some of the best entries in the series. But it’s also easy to overlook how he also directed the confusingly titled fourth entry “Fast and Furious” (2001), the series’ worst entry, primarily marred by its oddly dreary tone and overuse of CGI cars for action scenes. Sadly, “F9” (2021) is somewhat of a hybrid between the strengths of films like “Fast 6” and the problems of the fourth film. It’s also easy to overlook those lost in this production, such as screenwriter Chris Morgan who had been with the series since “Tokyo Drift” and second unit director & stunt coordinator Jack Gill who was one of the key minds behind set pieces such as the astounding vault heist climax of “Fast Five” (2011) and the skydiving cars from “Fast and Furious 7” (2015), both of whom undoubtedly contributed to the series’ heights and whose absence is sorely felt.
The action is sadly one of the most underwhelming elements of “F9”. Some moments have that childlike imaginative zeal, but the film underutilises this a lot, often falling back on generic car-to-car gunfire. The best “Fast and Furious” setpieces take a key idea and explore all the ways it can be used to cause carnage, the vault heist from “Fast Five” being a great example. They don’t just drag a safe behind two cars and call it a day, they have it tumble around corners and through buildings, they use it as a battering ram and a wrecking ball, the cable shears the roof off a car, and so on. A tank on a highway, a chase down a mountain, cars that are essentially high speed ramps, the best action scenes in the franchise follow this mould. In comparison, the first major setpiece in “F9” in Central America, doesn’t really have any defining gimmick. There’s a bit where the characters drive through a minefield but that’s just driving in a straight line with explosions going off behind them. And there’s the big trailer moment with the car swinging on a bridge cable across a gorge but that just brings me to another big issue with this film’s action, an increased reliance on CGI cars. This series has prided itself on its consistent use of practical car stunts, and there’s plenty to see here. But there are some noticeable points where the film leans on CGI vehicles that arguably look worse than the infamous CG cars in the opening race of “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003) from almost 20 years ago. They seem to weigh at least five times as much as the actual cars you can see being destroyed, often in the same scenes as these poor simulations. This is not a dig against the CG artists who worked on this film, the decline in CGI quality in blockbusters has been a noticeable trend in recent years certainly caused by the over-reliance on – and consequently the overworking of – CG artists. These people deserve all the love, and this is not their fault.
The later action sequence in Edinburgh involving a big electromagnet is a strong standout though. It explores a central visual gimmick and derives a ton of fun ideas from it, there’s a ton of fun character moments especially with Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) who is often otherwise relegated to technobabble and screaming from the passenger seat. There’s also the personal impact of the setting. Yeah I lived in Edinburgh at the time of filming, but I don’t anymore. I moved away on short notice, and I still haven’t quite gotten over the homesickness. And because of the way that action chases around cities on film tend to fudge with geography – jumping from one location to another in a cut knowing that those unfamiliar with the setting won’t notice or care – it became a tour of the city centre, guiding me around locations from the past few years of my life. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside in a way no film has in a long while. Also hearing Roman complain about Edinburgh being “filled in”, looking like Transylvania and there being barristers in full robe and wig walking around was just delightful. This one sequence is easily the most giddy and excited I’ve been in a cinema in a long time (only partly because of the long gap in attendance because, y’know) and it easily made the whole thing worth seeing.
The narrative this time around has some issues too. This is the longest “Fast and Furious” movie so far, but not by that much. The problem is that it feels so much longer because of how it’s paced and structured. The story is very piecemeal as the cast spends a large portion of the film scattered around the globe, jumping between the UK, Japan and Germany as well as occasionally cutting away to the villains hideout, on top of an entire flashback storyline about Dom’s youth. This is perhaps the epitome of the series’ increasing focus on globetrotting espionage that has made it more like Diet “Mission Impossible”. The fifth film stuck to Rio while the sixth was largely set in London until a move to Spain near the climax, after that point the films moved to the spy movie standard where almost every setpiece takes place in a different country. That’s not necessarily a problem, the seventh film was still great, but combined with the divided narrative it creates a film that spends so much time jumping around that it fails to find its heart.
The whole film has an oddly serious bent to it. The “Fast and Furious” films, even the early ones, have always had a cheesy, soap opera tone where the characters take the events completely seriously while the filmmakers have an awareness of how silly this all is and have fun with it. Here it feels like the filmmakers are beginning to take it just as seriously as the characters, even trying to pull intense, dramatic pathos out of the shark-jumping sequel stereotype of going to space.
Han’s return was also underwhelming. He arrives into the film far too late, almost into the third act, and spends much of his time on-screen expositing the circumstances of his return. It also goes to odd lengths to avoid really incorporating Han’s survival into the events of “Tokyo Drift” despite its leads returning for one of the film’s many subplots, showing that would have given their eventual reunion a lot more gravity. And while Letty’s return in “Fast 6” was a core facet of that film that affects the entire cast, Han is pretty much just added to introduce a human plot device played by Anna Sawai who gets even fewer lines than him (but that one moment of her yanking back the bolt of a vehicle-mounted machine gun in the climax is outstanding).
John Cena matches Vin Diesel’s intense and imposing energy as his estranged brother. Absolute 11/10 casting. However he’s underutilised, largely because he’s forced to play second fiddle to some generic rich guy whose name I refuse to look up out of sheer disinterest. On top of this he has to fight for screen time with returning “Fate of the Furious” villain Cypher (Charlize Theron), who is just as obnoxious in her deadpan faux-philosophical pontification here as she was in that previous film and whose presence is rendered utterly pointless as she spends the entire film sitting in a glass box like a knock-off Raoul Silva from “Skyfall” (2012) and escapes in the last five minutes only to be thwarted quicker than Wile E. Coyote on an off-day. This lack of focus leaves Cena’s eventual heel-face turn completely unearned. (I’m pretty sure his younger flashback-self gets more screen time than him).
I’ve been really negative about “F9”, mainly out of disappointment from multiple years worth of hype. There’s a decent chance the film will grow on me when I watch it at home in my next of many series binges. But at the same time I think the issues I’ve talked about here will remain, like the languid tone and pacing that makes it less exciting and rewatchable than entries I would consider lesser than it. There’s just so much I wish had been different: I wish Cena had been the sole villain of the film and gotten the focus and attention he deserved, I wish it had let the cast interact more instead of scattering them around the world like a Roland Emmerich movie, I wish it hadn’t wasted Han. And even if this film does grow on me I think that disappointment will linger. But with all that being said, I would still highly recommend getting into this series from the very beginning. It’s an intensely earnest series full of fantastic stunts and memorable characters and soap opera drama. If you’ve read all this then I have to assume this pitch might interest you at least a bit, so get stuck in and have fun. Figure out your own unique ranking of the series.
Oh that reminds me, update! (6>5>7>3>2>1>9>8>Hobbs and Shaw>4).