Once upon a time there was a group of underprivileged youth making ends meet by hijacking trucks to steal home electronics. Then one thing led to another until they one day found themselves racing a submarine on an ice flow in order to save the world. Granted the phrase ‘one thing led to another’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.
It speaks to the gradual shift in focus for the Fast & Furious films from crime thrillers with a hefty layering of big-budget action visuals to out and out action blockbusters. Encountering them in real time over the course of 20 years the change isn’t exactly organic but there is something of flow to it that makes it easy to internalize and go with. Smashing those pieces together and reminding us of the discord on the other hand…
Most of that evolution was overseen by director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan, who took over after original stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker left, to try and create something new with little more than a brand name. It didn’t work but fair play to Universal they kept trying, eventually bringing back the older, wiser original stars for ‘one last go ‘round’ the mean streets of Los Angeles.
That was successful enough for one more ‘last go ‘round’ which turned out to be REALLY successful (not mention sporting one of the all-time great screen car chases) and we were off to the races. After guiding Dominic Toretto and his adopted family from fighting drug dealers to chasing international terrorists in a tank, Lin left the franchise to explore other opportunities.
Returning he has found something more or less the same as he left it only more so (e.g. the submarine), and taken on more control than he ever had before serving not just as director but producer and co-writer. Without the partnership with Morgan (off working on the Hobbs & Shaw spin-off), the results are a mixed bag.
Following the events of Fate of the Furious, Dom and Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez) have dropped out of civilization in order to avoid international cyber-criminal Cypher (Charlize Theron) and raise Dom’s newly-discovered son Brian. No one stays retired in Furiousville forever though, and when a distress call from their old CIA buddy Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) shows up, they quickly jump back in the saddle to chase down another threat to world civilization.
What’s worse, this one (an orb that will upset global electronics in some vague way) is in the hands of Dom’s nefarious younger brother Jacob (John Cena) who is looking to take his long-standing rivalry with Dom out on the whole world.
Lin’s great brainstorm about the Fast & Furious movies was that they needed a melodramatic, almost operatic character conflict to tie the ridiculous plots to. It’s a standard conceit for blockbuster films but one few modern franchises have handled as well, throwing fugitive manhunts, amnesiac ex-girlfriends, murdered colleagues and ‘the child you never knew you had’ twists at it growing coterie adventurers.
Not since Luke Skywalker discovered his true parentage has a franchise plumbed the depths of afternoon soap operas to such great effect. But like a drug addict, these things have to be applied in ever greater doses to match the first amazing high, leaving a series potentially in a spiral of ever-escalating stakes. For the Furious films this is as much an issue with the drama as with the plots and set pieces, but all facing the same problem in the end.
After eight films, there aren’t too many melodrama rocks left unturned to anchor a new go round. Evil twin / evil brother is just about the only way the series could have gone and Lin uses it to great effect.
Easily the most affecting and engaging part of F9 are the history and rivalry between Dom and Jacob. It plays directly to the head of the family vibe Diesel has perfected for these films and Cena transitions smoothly from his goofball persona to an angry executioner.
While the other films played off pre-existing relationships for more organic melodrama, however, Jacob has been dropped wholesale into a series nine episodes deep and that takes some ground laying. A hefty portion of F9 is spent in flashback showing their history, including the oft-referenced incident of Dom killing a man with a wrench and being sent to prison, and the relationships shattering after the death of their father during car race. On its own, its exactly what adult Dom and Jacob need.
But it’s not on its own, it’s a single stitch in a fabric made up of rocket cars and magnets powerful enough to flip a tank. The flashbacks don’t just remind us where Dom and Jacob came from and reflect where they are now, the do the same to series itself, forcing us recognize just how insane the whole thing is rather than let it wash over us and suspend disbelief.
Which wouldn’t be that much of a problem on its own, but Lin insists on holding that mirror up to the franchise again and again. Characters have metatextual conversations about how ridiculous it all is and how they should be dead in a way that seems meant to hang a lampshade on the series quirks but instead shines a spotlight on them. “Have faith,” F9 says, “just go with it,” but more work is required for that.
One of the reasons the series was able to make the gradual jump it has from stealing cars and fighting drug dealers to flying cars in outer space and sinking submarines is the scripts always at least tried to show some sort of path from A to B, introducing characters and explaining how they and their plot points got where they need to be, holding onto that last vestige of their crime film past.
F9 has no time for any of that. Characters show up wherever they need to, whenever they need to with the barest of hand waves explaining “my father is a dictator and owns the country so…” or more frequently “Mr. Nobody worked his CIA magic.” It’s the bare minimum of connective tissue to make more room for flashbacks that the film may have needed because there’s more than just a suddenly appearing younger brother needing to be retconned.
Sung Kang’s Han has also returned with Lin, needing his apparent death 15 years ago, and what he’s been doing in the meantime, explained in a way that adds little to the main conflict or the plot but does eat up a lot of time and introduces a new character who needs their own back story. To make room for this, recent mainstays like Russell and Charlize Theron are reduced to filming all of their scenes in a box or on a screen, barely interacting with any other actors in the film.
Depending on your point of view, Lin has either reduced the series down to its essence or jettisoned many of its essential parts in a misguided quest for a focused narrative. What it’s actually done is traded out one set of baggage for another and opened itself up to all sorts of problems of reconciliation which were better left under the hood.
To be fair, nobody goes to see Fast & Furious films for their story logic and character drama. Most of the time they are gloriously, gloriously stupid. It is, genuinely, what is so great about them. But when its deficiencies are repeatedly thrust in our faces there’s little that can be done but stare at them.
All of that said, Lin does understand what makes these things tick and even as lesser installment it’s got all of the big budget thrills you could ask for. It’s just the sense of fun that’s missing. Maybe they’ll find it the next go round but first they have to face the series’ real existential question. Now that we’ve done all this, what on earth can we do next?
F9 REVIEW SCORE: 6.5/10
Universal Pictures‘ F9 will hit theaters on June 25. The Fast & Furious film stars returning cast members Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel and Sung Kang, with Oscar winner Helen Mirren and Oscar winner Charlize Theron. It’s directed by Justin Lin, who helmed four previous Fast & Furious films.