Warning: spoilers ahead. I do generally avoid spoilers with reviews, but it was difficult to stem my excitement over this one without providing context. The spoilers are not just for F9 but for the whole series. There is also a Fast and Furious countdown in the works for this blog. There seems to be a strong chance that this page will someday turn into a Fast and Furious shrine.
Another disclaimer: for ease of reading, all Fast and Furious movies will be referred to as F + their number in the series (ie 2 Fast 2 Furious would be F2), rather than their names, given that some of the names are rather confusing, such as Fast and Furious which is technically the fourth movie of the franchise, not to be confused with the actual first movie, which is The Fast and the Furious. Also, side note, check this out to see the absolutely amazing titles that Japan has given each movie.
All right, here we go.
From its inception in 2001, basically Point Break with cars, the Fast and Furious series has centered around family, both blood and found. There must exist some drinking game (involving Corona, of course) every time Dom (Vin Diesel) utters the word “family”. F9: The Fast Saga doesn’t disappoint in this respect, achieving some necessary course-correcting after a flawed F8 which suffered not only from a glut of CG-laden effects, but also what seemed a fundamental misunderstanding of the characters and their dynamics.
Most of that is thanks to director Justin Lin’s return, who previously helmed the series from Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift to F6. Although inevitably following the unspoken rule of action sequels having to be bigger and more...explosion-ey, Lin scales back (minutely) on the CG in favor of practical effects when possible. More importantly, he tries to earn F9’s action level-ups with emotional payoffs. Among these is the introduction of a new family member, Jakob (John Cena), Dom’s long-lost brother, and the return of Han (Sung Kang), a fan-favorite character. Often, however, F9’s desire to one-up itself chokes its own more human efforts, like when Han’s revival necessitates a convoluted backstory that does more to glaze eyes over than to bring tears to them.
F9 likely keeps up its frenetic pace to leave less time to ponder over its manifold plotholes. Everything screams that it’s more: more Nos, more utterances of family, more everything. We had a “God’s Eye” Macguffin in F7? How about a Macguffin that makes you the “god of everything” in F9? We have cars falling out of planes (F7) or racing submarines (F8)? How about strapping a car to a rocket so it can ram a satellite in space? It’s not until much later that we have the time to wonder, wait a minute...if they just needed to destroy the satellite, wasn’t there a better/easier way to do it? We see Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) briefly before his plane crashes early in the film, but he’s never mentioned again. Is he presumed dead? Missing? Who even has time to keep it straight? In an extended gag, Roman (Tyrese Gibson) asks whether they’re invincible considering all of the preposterous stunts they pull, all while coming out “without a scratch.” It’s meant to be a funny wink at the audience, but it highlights how little sense these films make. It says something that one of the biggest laughs of the movie comes from Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) assuring Roman that everything will be fine as long as they “follow the rules of physics”, which were left in the rearview mirror somewhere five movies ago.
And I know that talking about the Fast series executing some sort of logic is a shout into the void, but hear me out. As a devoted fan, I’ve never needed to understand the physics of F7’s Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers jump stunt or how Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) suddenly developed the skills to go fist to fist with a UFC fighter. Less is more, and as Tej succinctly explains when people question his extensive, seemingly newfound tech skills: “I had a life before you knew me.” However, once the characters strayed from their scrappy, from-the-streets vibe, and more to a superheroes with cars vibe, they suddenly became a lot more invulnerable. We cheered when Dom took a bullet to the shoulder in F4 and turned around to glare murder at the perpetrator, but now I suspect that bullets would just bounce off of his pecs. And the closer he gets to Superman, the less we care about the characters’ safety. In F7, when Brian (Paul Walker) sprints up the top of the bus as it’s sliding off a cliff, you feel much more anxious for him, heart in your throat, than when Dom drives off of another cliff, cool as a cucumber, in F9. Brian screeches at Dom in F7: "Dom, cars don't fly!", but no one would dare tell that to Dom now. The series has taken away one of the cardinal rules of action, as exemplified by Jackie Chan: if you survive, it has to hurt. Letty’s resurrection in F6 has more emotional impact because we aren’t expecting her return. But now that we’ve had Han resurrected and retconned twice, it lessens the impact of any death that might happen because it feels about as reversible as an Infinity Glove snap. F9 never gives us an instance where we’re worried that the world will end, the heroes won’t win, or that they’ll even get out of this with more than a few scratches. Rather than giving its characters more freedom, they’re now in the danger of becoming boring.
Because these characters are now seemingly invulnerable, they no longer have to think too far ahead about how to survive or outwit their enemies. F5 has the crew pulling a clever bait-and-switch heist to get out with their lives and their money, but now you have Dom sharing secrets in the open while his enemy sits five feet away. But what does that even matter when he can just pull a Samson-like move, bringing down scores of enemies with just his biceps? Much to the story’s detriment, the stakes prove as amorphous as their enemies now, including the faceless military goons of a fictional Central American country, or the ever-convenient threat of a device that can control the world’s security.
This is not to say though that F9 fails to entertain. The kinetic action never oversaturates to the point of dulling us to explosions. Even if we never fear for Letty’s life while she drives a motorbike over an exploding minefield, the scene still burgeons over with fun, which has become a necessary ingredient in the series. Lin knows exactly how to handle action sequences that range from straightforward to cleverly choreographed, and above all, are just fun to witness even if they make no sense at all. You can practically feel his glee at being back in the seat, concocting harebrained schemes for the characters to accomplish. Nothing storytelling-wise surprises the audience, but maybe we need something comforting as some of us return to the theaters. And there’s nothing more so than being able to join Dom and his crew as they gather for another victory BBQ in his backyard.
Reading an interview about putting women in the “front seat” of F9 initially made me leery of an Infinity Wars: Endgame-esque pandering scene, but Lin thankfully has more subtlety than a Marvel movie. Part of my misgiving was because the Fast series already had women like Giselle (Gal Gadot) to Letty, who exemplified their own strengths without calling attention to themselves. That’s why it’s especially frustrating when in F8, Dom feels the need to suddenly surge forward to defend Letty’s honor via a car race when she’s insulted by another man. Excuse me, Dom? Don’t you remember in the former movie, when Letty won a race at the Race Wars? Or when she drifted her car along the edge of a cliff to snatch Brian out of mid-air and certain death? How about her time as a mercenary driver in F6? Thankfully, Letty returns to form here, probably due in large part to her vocal calling out of F8. The very first scene we see of Dom in F1, outlines their relationship to a T. Everyone listens to Dom, and Dom listens to Letty. Ever since Brian's departure in F7, Letty is really the only one who is Dom's equal, who can pull him back from anything. And despite the fact that they're each other's ride-or-die, she has feelings and decisions independent of him.
Letty’s conversation with Mia (Jordana Brewster) in Tokyo acts as one of the important emotional anchors of the film. It emphasizes her own personhood, her feelings, as well as her relationship with Mia. This segues into one of the best fight scenes of the film. Whereas Mia has often been relegated to the sidelines in previous films, here we see her finally get her hands dirty. She hasn’t suddenly accrued impossible fighting skills, but her rough technique utilizes nearby pots with such relish that Rapunzel from Tangled would be proud.
Mia, along with Ramsey, are actually some of the more believable characters in a series where the team suddenly can't die. I don't know when the crew suddenly became expert snipers or able to take down a foreign military so easily. But Mia's fighting style actually makes sense, just like Ramsey's learning curve when she gets behind the wheel in F9. Ramsey's role is ever so welcome here, after being someone to be rescued or competed over. She's basically a prize in F7, and in F8, the writers clearly had no idea what to do with her and she primarily existed to finish sentences with Tej, who fulfilled much the same tech role as her. In F9, she's now behind the wheel, symbolizing her actual inclusion into the team whereas before she was always just behind a keyboard. At one point during her maniacal driving, Dom jumps into the passenger seat of the truck. And here, I have to admit I cringed, almost expecting him to take the wheel from her. That he doesn't is such a low bar to set, but we’ve admittedly come a million (quarter) miles from F3, which has a girl standing up before the first race to announce, “And the winner of this race...gets me.” This is the first Fast and Furious movie where we aren’t subjected to the routine montage of women’s butts and boobs during a street racing scene. Again, these are baby steps, but Lin’s certainly facing the right direction at least.
Unfortunately though, F9 criminally underutilizes Charlize Theron yet again in her return as super hacker villain Cipher. You can’t imagine my excitement when I first heard that Theron would be the main antagonist in F8 after reveling in her stint as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. But not only do we never see her behind the wheel, she spends almost all of F9’s running time in a glass prison as if she’s a super villain a la Magneto or Hannibal. Incredibly, she does even less than before, only simpering her lines as she bats her eyelashes and shows off her absurdly immaculate eye shadow. Theron could do so much more as Cipher, instead of just operating a drone from the safety of a bunker. At this point, the Fast series could honestly use a better villain, too, so this seems like a no-brainer.
Some mention here should be made about #justiceforhan, brought to larger attention by an article by Jen Yamato, which lamented the mistreatment of Han’s death in the series.
Han's presence is one of the only reasons why F3, for me, isn't at the bottom of my Fast ranking. Initially frustrated with a script that only featured Asians as villains, Lin pitched Han, and confused executives asked, “How do we make an Asian American dude cool? What does that mean?” Lin's answer in the character of Han Seoul-Oh, the consummate snacker who was cool without even trying, has forever cemented one of the Asian-American media icons, years before Steven Yeun made his debut as Glenn in Walking Dead. It's hard to pinpoint directly how vital his presence was in a landscape that so lacked similar Asian characters that served as role models. A hairdresser friend of mine confirmed that for years after Han's appearance, he had customers come in to request "the Han" to try and achieve that effortless, feathery mane.
It's not Han's death that's so egregious in the series, because it originally made a poetic sense for Lin to finish out his tenure as Fast director with the exit of Han. What made it such a travesty was that they killed him off, and then teamed up with his killer (Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw) after, never even addressing his crime. They spend all of F7 avenging his death by going after Shaw, and then in F8 they turn around to forgive Shaw, and ultimately invite him into the sacred space of the familial BBQ.
Han's return to the series in F9 makes absolutely no sense narrative-wise, and basically amounts to a hand wave, but this seems forgivable in the context of a movie that doesn't really make sense otherwise. More importantly though, it makes sense in the context of Lin righting a wrong in the Fast universe. We don't see in F9 exactly how this will all be course-corrected, although there is a hint that it will be addressed more fully in future films.
The Fast series’ sweet spot has always been when it embraces how ridiculous it is, while somehow remaining in the realm of possibility (as thin as that possibility is). F9 drives up right to that ridiculous line and then crosses the threshold of disbelief suspension, but it does signal a welcome return to form for the series: ludicrous stunts and down-to-earth conversations about how much the crew loves each other. It's reassuring to know that Lin is directing the next two films, which are apparently a two-part finale for the series. How are they going to top themselves after using Nos in space? Who even knows or cares. Just pop a Corona, and sit back to listen to Vin Diesel salute his family more times than he's ever said "I am Groot."