Movie Review: F9
By Matthew Huntley
July 6, 2021
It’s hard to believe, but after eight “Fast & Furious” movies (nine if you count “Hobbs & Shaw”), “F9” is the first entry in this 20-year-old franchise that underwhelmed me and made me wish the movie had flexed more brains than brawn. Its brawn has been developed enough and the series has now reached a point where it needs to give us something to think about.
And clearly, this wasn’t just my reaction, because during the screening—as happy as everyone seemed to be sitting in a movie theater amidst a (hopefully) weakening worldwide pandemic—I skimmed the auditorium and noticed most viewers, myself included, were merely staring at the screen passively, with little enthusiasm. Many were leaning on their fists, elbows propped on the armrest, their faces stoic, as if “F9” wasn’t giving anyone much reason to sit up and cheer. When the movie ended, the feeling in the air was, “Well, that was that.”
I describe this dispirited scenario because it’s so atypical for any “F&F” movie, which, even after so many sequels, have always had the ability to thrill us visually and sensationally. Despite their easy, brainless, rapid-exposition plots, the movies’ over-the-top stunts and playful, diverse characters have consistently won us over, no matter how ridiculous or corny things got. Plus, the series has never taken itself too seriously and therefore we’ve always been able laugh with it instead of at it.
With “F9,” however, we don’t laugh so much as grin or chuckle from time to time, although we mostly find ourselves just sitting there, waiting as the movie goes through its motions. But its motions have crossed a line whereby this eighth sequel ends up being too absurd, redundant, and silly for its own good. Maybe the problem was the four-year gap between “The Fate of the Furious” (2017) and “F9” (although, to be fair, “F9” was scheduled to be released in April 2020); or maybe it’s the still lingering effects of the pandemic; or maybe it’s simply the franchise finally showing its age and it simply can’t have the same impact it once had. Whatever the case, “F9” is missing that unique spark that has allowed this once formidable brand to stay afloat for two decades. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still impressive it’s taken this long for its flame to die down, but I’m afraid it has.
You might be asking, after all the crazy missions the diverse, multi-skilled, super athletic “F&F” gang has survived and accomplished, what could they possibly do next? This question leads to one of the movie’s underlying problems, which is that the screenplay by director Justin Lin and Daniel Casey, from a story by Lin, Casey, and Alfredo Botello, haphazardly tosses new (or once thought-to-be-dead) characters into the mix and provides them too quick and convenient of backstories because it simply needed an excuse to reunite this multifarious crew. But as much we like seeing everyone, they’re not given anything terribly interesting to do other than the usual. Perhaps the filmmakers thought we wouldn’t care or notice the narrative is particularly hollow this time around, but we do.
For instance, the movie opens with a flashback in 1989, which shows the fatal race Dom (Vin Diesel) recounted to Brian (Paul Walker) in the very first film. Dom’s beloved father died in the race, which led a young Dom (Vinnie Bennett) to beat another racer with a wrench and consequently serve a prison sentence. The incident’s relevance here is that it introduces a third Toretto sibling into the fold—brother Jakob (Finn Cole)—who we never knew existed, although it’s likely he never actually existed until now and was dreamed up because the screenwriters needed him to play an integral role in the plot of “F9.”
Whatever the case, the older Jakob (John Cena), a former agent for Nobody, has been estranged from Dom and their sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) for 30 plus years, after Dom blamed Jakob for sabotaging their father’s racecar. Whether or not that’s true, I’ll not reveal, but the riff between the brothers has turned Jakob into a megalomaniac with ambitions to not only take over the world but to finally show up his older brother.
Dom learns of this while peacefully raising his son Brian on their idyllic farm, where he and wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are paid a visit from fellow “F&F” veterans Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). They bring word of a distress signal from Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), the mysterious government agent, after Nobody managed to capture Cipher (Charlize Theron), the diabolical villain from the last movie.
Nobody’s message leads the crew to Central America, where they discover Jakob has teamed up with Cipher to wreak worldwide chaos. Jakob’s plan: piece together two halves of a device called Ares, which can essentially hack into any computer on the planet and take control of it. It’s probably no coincidence the Ares object shares a similar look and function to that of the Tesseract from the “Avengers” films, since “F&F” itself has essentially become a superhero franchise.
And so, our heroes head to all corners of the world—from Cologne, Tbilisi, and Tokyo to Edinburgh, London, and even outer space(!)—to thwart Jakob and quash his evil scheme. Their mission, and how they carry it out, is very much in line with what we’ve seen before. “F9” is replete with exaggerated action and stunts, including car chases; jumps across rooftops and through windows (and sometimes through walls); ziplining; wrestling; hand to hand combat and martial arts (which everybody seems to know); and, of all things, rocket launching. You know the drill. This team’s motto is still “whatever it takes” and money, logistics, and the question of how they’re going to survive never seem to be an object. They just do what they do.
But unfortunately, what the “F&F” gang does this time around isn’t as exciting. Their efforts lack freshness and awe compared to the previous installments. Even though I’ve enjoyed all “F&F” films hitherto now and have always considered their outrageousness and implausibility part of their charm, “F9,” for some reason, comes across as taking things too far and being too incredulous, even in this universe.
For starters, the characters are invincible and impervious to the point it’s not even amusing, and their lack of vulnerability often makes the events of the movie feel inconsequential, even dull. For all the hits, falls, punches, beatings, deaths, etc. the heroes endure, the lack of any real threat or danger to their physical or mental well-being prevents the plot and action from carrying weight, and we therefore lose interest.
And even though the screenplay makes it a point to mention the group’s indestructibility when Roman suggests they might all be superhuman (given the improbability of their survival rate), his spiritual theories feel like a cop-out and a cheap way for the movie to tell us it’s best to just go with the flow and not think too hard.
But at this point in the series, we want to think, especially if the action is going to be so routine. I wanted answers to practical questions such as how did Jakob acquire the intelligence, skills, capital, etc. to become such a criminal mastermind? Besides being an agent and pumping iron, what has he been up to the past 30 years? Why did he think now was as good a time as any to go rogue and take over the planet? Are his motivations seriously only linked to proving his superiority to Dom?
Also, on a more physics-based level, there’s a scene in which Letty must save Dom from drowning. How, exactly, was the comparatively small-framed Letty able to lift the six-foot, 250 lbs. Dom out of the water? And how is that Tej and Roman were able to build up the physical stamina to go into outer space on such short notice?
I know, I know: my questions are futile, especially for a “Fast & Furious” movie, from which I’m not supposed to demand any logic or reason. But the fact that I am asking for substance from an intentionally substance-free franchise suggests that eight may have been this series’ number. As it is, part nine illustrates it’s now suffering from general wear and tear and fatigue.
It’s only natural, I suppose. After all, nothing lasts forever, but rather than the filmmakers and cast continue to run it into the ground, they should consider what I assume will be the typical response to “F9” that I described at the beginning of this review and just let the franchise be. There would be no shame in taking the high road and accepting the series has undoubtedly had an amazing run but that it’s ultimately run its course.