Usually, the Fast and Furious movies are all about moving forward. Living life a quarter-mile at a time, and all that. This latest entry, Fast and Furious 9, is much the same, except with an odd habit of looking in the rearview, hurting its own momentum and overshadowing a richer narrative in the process.
After the crew’s calamitous encounter with Cipher (Charlize Theron) in Fate of the Furious, Dom (Vin Diesel), and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have settled down somewhere rural with Dom’s son. Their peaceful life away from it all doesn’t last long, of course, because Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) track them down, and they’ve got some worrying information. Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) had managed to capture Cipher, but she was able to escape, and he sent out a distress call just before everything went totally south, warning about a gizmo that needs finding.
Everyone decides to get in on a mission to retrieve said gizmo, except Dom, who’s retired, until he notices someone in Mr. Nobody’s wearing a tacky cross around their neck, and leaps to action. Melodramatic and overblown in exactly the way this series is great at.
What follows is a breathless sequence where the crew cut through Montecito, Central America in muscle cars, motorbikes, and what’s basically a small tank. They find their MacGuffin easy enough, but because international law is a thing, that country’s military is here, and they’ve to make for the border sharpish.
This is director Justin Lin’s fifth Fast movie, and his dab hand for boisterous action has remained strong. The gang estimate that at 80mph, they can drive through a minefield without exploding. The camera cuts to an overhead view of opposition vehicles being thrown left and right by these mines, while Dom’s pinstriped muscle car roars forward. Roman, Tej, and Ramsey aren’t far behind, just keeping pace, but staying ahead of the explosions.
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It’s kinetic, and boisterous, and then John Cena’s mystery antagonist shows up, and it seems like we’re only getting started, when suddenly we’re in a flashback. Cena’s playing Jakob Toretto, Dom’s estranged brother, and chunks of the film are dedicated to a built-in prequel, explaining their father’s death, and insurmountably broken relationship.
The movie even begins with this, showing the race where Jack Toretto (J. D. Pardo) crashed and died. Leading into Dom’s life as a father, the contrast demonstrates the cycle he wants to break, for his own family. But then it’s laid on thick via dramatic vignettes of Dom and Jakob getting into fights, going to jail, and eventually parting ways. They look and sound like episodes of Prison Break, and do nothing some well-crafted exposition between the grown-up counterparts couldn’t – the movie equivalent of meetings that could’ve been an email.
These scenes only distract from the international narrative that’s unfolding between them. The gang split up to follow different leads: Dom goes to London to squad up with Helen Mirren and face Jakob, Letty and Mia (Jordana Brewster) go to Japan to find Han (Sung Kang), who might be alive, and Ludacris and Tyrese go to see a man about a rocket-powered car.
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Mirren gets a joyful car chase in, Dom finds Jakob, and – surprise! – we get #JusticeForHan and he returns. It’s all good fun, Han explains how he survived that exploding car, and then Jakob’s boss, Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), storms their hideout, leading to a brutal sacrifice from Dom.
Fast and Furious channels the immediacy of drag racing, where everything is ride or die. Dom and his crew only ever have the stretch of road that’s in front of them, no U-turns or second guessing allowed, because when you do that, you lose, or worse. Every time Fast and Furious 9 starts shifting into high-gear, it thrusts into reverse for another memory of Toretto family drama, throttling the whole engine.
Han, a fan-favourite character who’s quite literally back by popular demand, is given a loose subplot of watching over a young woman, Elle (Anna Sawai), for all these years that’s glossed over. An entire arc of working for Mr. Nobody, living in secrecy, becoming a father figure, provided in swift bullet-points like we’re pressed for time. Budding partnerships, obvious groundwork for potential spin-offs, rely on quick conversations, having to squeeze around the Torettos and their need to make everything everyone else’s concern.
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At two-and-a-half hours, there’s still plenty of churning metal and cars going places they shouldn’t. The crew get their hands on a superpowerful electro-magnet for the mayhem of the second half, tearing apart high streets, and dragging a sports car clean through a building. By now, you may have heard we end up in space, and all I’ll say is there’s another car involved.
It all broadly amounts to the same kind of cinematic roller-coaster Dom and his cohorts have been curating over the last decade or so. Massive peaks and volleys, bending physics where needed, bringing us down to Earth when appropriate. But with extraneous scenes explaining the emotional crux without trusting us to feel it, like a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne’s parents murder is mentioned every 30 minutes.
A great strength of Fast and Furious compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe is that lack of context. There’s no lore, no backlog of comics or mythology to sift through to understand why that guy matters or that hint could turn into something.
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Or at least, these movies don’t generally rely on it, instead making it up as they go along and trusting we’ll be along for the ride. The series understood that stuff is often not as exciting as dedicated fans, or filmmakers, think it is, and sure enough, now they’re incorporating more, it’s just sort of boring, in a way not even a great Prodigy remix can salvage.
The movie is still fine, because there’s a science at play that these filmmakers have developed for themselves. The scale and movement has a particular fashion to it that, despite clothing from 2003, isn’t going out of style, and the added self-awareness of Tyrese convinced they might be invulnerable is charmingly meta.
This franchise knows what it is, and when it’s allowed be that – macho Power Rangers where people morph into suped-up vehicles and membership comes with being a chill misfit – Fast and Furious absolutely justifies the ten films and counting it’s amounted to so far. Trying to justify its own plain metaphors isn’t the way forward, and just gets everyone stuck in the mud.