With F9 (and let’s face it, this series is just a harbinger of what is to come – all our movies will eventually become mere letters and numbers, like some strange form of Bingo. I am especially excited to see K6, A17, and W23 sometime in the near future) the Fast & Furious franchise has finally hit the place that we hoped this series would never get to – routine.
It was probably inevitable. An awful lot of the fun of these movies was trying to anticipate what would happen next. Since Fast Five, where the series turned away from street racing and into full-on global adventure mode, critics and fans alike were wondering just how unconventional these movies could get while staying roughly in the same template.
Until now, they were a refreshing change of pace from the other movie sagas – staying inside a semblance of reality while the movies became more and more outrageous.
These films have gone beyond the ideas of mere “Good” and “Bad.” At this point, they are their own thing, outside of criticisms of quality and competency. Either you’re into it or you’re not.
Can the Fast Saga be judged critically? Of course it can. But one of the most endearing aspects of this series has been their ability to call their shot and hit it most of the time. With the increasing reliance of CGI over practical stunts and effects, and the centering of Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel) as the main narrative thrust of the franchise, sad to say, the shine has come off the rims with this series.
Again, there is a device that could feasibly (or not so feasibly) end the world. Again, our team, led by Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) join Roman (Tyrese), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsay (Nathalie Emmanuel) to retrieve it.
As always, there is an adversary – Jakob Torretto (John Cena), Dom’s long lost and ostracized brother who seeks revenge against Dom as well as world domination.
And that’s really it, story wise. Problem is, this is the same plot since F6. It’s the game of Fetch Worldwide all over again. We accepted it a few films back; this time, we roll our eyes.
As in earlier installments, the return of other characters from previous films is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this series, and in this one we get the return of who is arguably the most popular supporting character of the franchise: Han (Sung Kang), who supposedly died in Tokyo Drift, returned for more adventures in later films, only to be “killed” again at the end of F6. Turns out… duh duh DUH… he wasn’t killed after all!
The way his story and this film’s story intertwine is as convoluted as it appears, but who cares; Kang is terrific as Han and we are happy to see him back.
It’s also nice to revisit other characters like Lucas Black’s Sean, now a gearhead working on a new kind of vehicle with his buddies. We even see some villains return, such as Cypher (Charlize Theron), even though she is not given much to do except look ominous.
So why be so picky? We know what these movies deliver up front. You know what you’re going to get. So what’s with all the criticism?
If you come at these films on their own terms, audiences find much to appreciate and enjoy because a lot of the time, these movies surprise you. The stunt work in previous entries, for example, has always impressed. The characters feel genuine, even in this amped-up, physics-defying world. That’s almost entirely due to screenwriter Chris Morgan, who wrote this series out of a hole and into greatness.
But Chris Morgan didn’t write this one, and it shows. Before F9, these movies felt like they were in on the joke with us. Now, F9 demands that we take all this seriously, and that these characters’ struggles are legitimate drama as opposed for filler moments of jokes and flexing in between the action sequences.
Sure, this series has hit poignancy before (the passing of Paul Walker still hovers over this franchise, and sometimes not in the best of ways, although that can’t be helped), but it was a sneak attack on the audience when it was done best.
In Fast Five (the pinnacle of the franchise, let’s be honest) we found our heroes stretching the laws of physics just a tad, but never far enough to strain credulity too much. The problem came when fans wanted the series to push it even further, and the films happily agreed.
So now, in F9, the film, eager as a puppy, does what audiences have wanted to see for years, and the result is some of the most boring moments of the Fast Saga. Even worse, some of our favorite characters are involved and these scenes make them inert. The bigger this movie goes, the smaller it feels.
The rest of the characters are caught up in Dom’s story, and somewhere along the way, what was breezy and light became dour and serious. One of the few times we even see Dom smile is in his scenes with Queenie (Helen Mirren), and you can feel the weight of all that seriousness disappear, only to come back ten-fold a few minutes later. Dammit, these movies used to be fun.
The more these stories center around Dom, the less impactful they become. I’m not sure if anyone’s told Vin Diesel just how depressing his character’s become over the last couple of installments.
Speaking personally, I’ve long stopped watching for Dom anyway. I’m watching for Roman, for Tej, for Han, even for Letty, Hobbs, and Shaw. It’s a shame that John Cena came at his role in a similar way that Diesel does; Cena is a funny, charismatic actor, but in F9 he’s reduced to glowering at Dom to see who gets the best grimace.
Anyone who has ever watched a movie before can see how this story will play out. If there was an opportunity to break out of this pattern it was this movie, and there is a sequence that actually threatens to do that, but it settles back into the same old rhythms we have seen before.
It may be too late for this franchise to pull back on the stakes a bit. These movies used to be about heists, chases, and bravado; now that the world is threatened with each installment, it becomes more exhausting with each new movie. You can see the arc of this franchise from space, and we are most definitely in the decline.
It may take two full cans of NOS to pull us out of it. As a fan of the Fast Saga, I’m not so much mad as disappointed, and while we are not at the end of it yet, you can predict what’s coming, and in a series that celebrated how unpredictable it was, that’s not a good thing.
In the context of the franchise, F9 is most definitely a lesser entry.
F9 REVIEW SCORE: 5.5/10
Universal Pictures‘ F9 will hit theaters on June 25. Directed by Justin Lin, the 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.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years, for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.