When the Fast & Furious series began in 2001, the OG film was a crime drama about an undercover cop, Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), getting too close to his target, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). 20 years later the Fast films, now known as The Fast Saga, have shifted away from their drama origins into straight-up Mission: Impossible-meets-007 homages as the once VCR thieves have become world-renowned action heroes. As F9, the ninth main timeline entry, finally drops in theaters, the series opts to look backward as it hits the throttle toward the final quarter mile in the yet untitled F10 and F11. Seeing as the series is nine films deep including the spin-off Hobbs & Shaw (2019), the 10th has to pull surprises from somewhere, so the past is the best place to start. The trick is, the constant switch in gears prevents the script from Daniel Casey (Kin) and Justin Lin (who also returns to the directing chair after Fast 5 and Furious 6) from finding its rhythm. Thankfully, while the stunts feel, at times, derivative to other Fast moments, the emotional beats land beautifully.
Since the end of The Fate of the Furious (2017), Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have been living the quiet life with his son Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holtane). But retirement never lasts long as the team responds to an S.O.S. from Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), inadvertently forcing Dom to confront his past if he is to save the future. In all their adventures, the team has survived cartels, robbed a drug lord, stopped a rogue spy, and took out a nuclear sub. All of that will seem like child’s play compared to what comes next.
Look, at this point in the series, there’s nothing a critic can write that would prevent anyone from seeing the film (frankly, The Fast Saga is critique-proof at this point). This doesn’t mean that F9 or any of the others are free from analysis because, like any other film, there’s what the cast and crew seek to do compared to how effectively their visions worked. After the sudden and tragic death of Paul Walker while filming Furious 7, the series was no longer a two-hander, requiring Diesel’s Dom to move to the center-stage. The smart move in Fate was making Dom part of newly introduced bad guy Cypher’s (Charlize Theron as a premier villain) plan, requiring new approaches from the team to tackle their leader and save the day. Like the films have done since Fast 5, F9 brings together not just the collection of misfits from the recent films, but goes back to Tokyo Drift (2006), the third entry in the series, enabling Sean (Lucas Black), Twinkie (Shad Moss), and Earl (Jason Tobin) to rejoin the main series, and answer some questions not yet explored. The past is an interesting place to begin, going beyond when Dom meet Brian, to when Dom’s father was racing stock cars, enabling the audience to experience the moment when Dom’s rage gave him the charge that put him on the path to theft. This exploration of Dom’s past also allows Casey and Lin to introduce a character the audience had never heard of before, Dom’s little brother Jakob (John Cena). The questions of why the estrangement and why does Jakob seem to outmatch Dom in every area come together to become the narrative catalyst and emotional core of the film. The trick is that in order for the narrative beats to land how Lin wants in execution, the film has to pause the current timeline to jump to the past. The frequency of jumping back and forth undercuts the immediate urgency of the ticking clock that’s running before the audience realizes. The other problem is that rather than being a cut-out enemy — Carter Verone (Cole Hauser), Arturo Braga (John Ortiz), Herman Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), even Cypher at the start — the film needs to flesh out Jakob due to the character’s connection to siblings Dom and Mia (Jordana Brewster). Some of the stalling could have been prevented with a shift in editing scene order or by using dialogue of the non-exposition variety to get the same information across. It certainly doesn’t help that giving screen time to so many familiar faces across the series requires its own slowing down of momentum to make those moments worth it. The thing is, while there’s a lot more talking and less action in The Fast and the Furious (2001), since Fast & Furious (2009), there was an obvious push toward the later over the former. The end result is a pacing issue where you take notice of the sudden downshifting right as the film is hitting a nice pace, requiring the audience to re-find their groove.
As for the action, well, it’s fairly safe to say that Fate is where the series as a whole jumped the proverbial shark. Furious 6 dips its toe in the waters of ridiculousness when Dom saves Letty by jumping out of his car to catch her falling through the air. Had there been stunts which bent the rules of logic before? Yep. But with audiences digging that moment in F6, F7 – 9 (including Hobbs & Shaw ) doubled-down on the lose physics of action films to go with gusto. We got Hobbs ripping off a cast and Dom breaking pavement each with their bare hands in F7, we got zombie cars in Fate, we got Hobbs keeping a chopper from taking off in his best Steve Rogers impression from Civil War (2016), and, in this one, we’ve got fun with magnets. There’s more than just this going on — the “Tarzan Swing,” for instance is in the marketing — and even Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) gets a turn behind the wheel, but the bulk of the fights or stunts feel like they’re taken from other moments in the series. For instance, a fight between Dom and Jakob feels like a rehash of Dom versus Hobbs in Fast Five. More often, the stunts feel fresh merely for who’s involved — Helen Mirran’s Magdalene “Queenie” Shaw gets to drive — versus how the stunt is executed. It’s not that F9 is stale; it’s not that. It’s just not as innovative as used to be. Plus, when the characters themselves start making meta jokes about the events of their lives, there’s no telling if the films are moving into another subgenre: camp.
This, of course, brings us to the last bit: there are zero surprises save for a mid-credits sequence. Anything that would’ve been a “moment” as much for the audience as it was for the characters is ruined by the marketing. The set-up for Jakob’s reveal? We already know. The return of Sung Kang’s Han? We already know. They go to space? Pretty sure the audience came up with that idea as a joke before the script made it an actuality, but, again, we already know. Fans of the series know going in to F9 that there are two more films in the pipeline so this combined with the marketing leads to not a single truly jaw-dropping moment in the entire film. You can still enjoy the ride, but the exhilaration of first impact is entirely lost.
Look, no one is going into the latest few Fast Saga films expecting all-caps CINEMA. It’s absolutely commendable how the series has gone from an almost Point Break (1991) knock-off into a global phenomenon, largely thanks to Lin who ushered in the connected universe of the first three films with Fast Five. These characters are beloved thanks to all-in performances from the cast and the way in which their adventures never really change them from the characters they were first introduced as: street racers from L.A. and Miami. This is what grounds them and keeps them endeared to us. Thanks to Lin’s initial weaving, we get Han back. No matter what you may think of the reasoning, it actually makes sense within the world we know as of F9. Same with the introduction of Jakob. Same with the continued threat from Cypher. As we head into the film half-mile of the The Fast Saga, as long as Toretto and the gang stick together, you can bet that audiences will, too. Doesn’t matter if they’re robbing trucks, riding rockets, or battling dinosaurs. (Yes, you read that last part right.)
In theaters on June 25th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official The Fast Saga website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.