Movies

F9 Review: ¡Ay, caramba!

After months of delays, re-schedulings, a booming theater chain stock, a half dozen sequel/spinoff announcements, and 20 years of in-universe buildup, F9 finally arrived to act as a potential savior of the very much in-peril theatrical experience. Already established as the biggest opening blockbuster since a global pandemic, is the Fast franchise here to remind us of the magic of movies? Of the emotive power, these characters have on millions of adoring fans? Well, not quite. In fact, after spending the last several weeks watching all of these Fast & Furious movies for the first time, I can say with great authority that F9 is the silliest film in this franchise, and one of the most absurd movies of all time.

But before we talk about the present, we should, like the film itself, go back to the beginning. In The Fast and the Furious (2001), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) talks briefly about his father’s death during a tragic car race. In F9, we finally see that tragedy and heartbreak on film, and the family it tore apart. Namely, Dom and his younger brother Jakob (John Cena). Fast forward 30 years later, and the estranged Jakob is back, assisting a criminal syndicate headed by Cypher (Charlize Theron), returning from her appearance in The Fate of the Furious (2017). Cypher exploits Jakob’s anger, turning his unresolved conflict with his brother into a means for her own personal gain.

Now, it would be easy to dismiss this development, as there has been zero references to Jakob’s existence in the previous 8 main Fast films. In fact, back in 2009’s Fast & Furious Mia (Jordana Brewster) tells Dom she doesn’t want to lose her “only brother.” So the introduction of Jakob is a blatant retcon. We even learn during F9 that Mia briefly kept in contact with Jakob, and longs for a family reconciliation between the three siblings, so you can’t excuse the “only brother” line by saying she was on bad terms with Jakob.

As far as the conflict between Dom and Jakob, their complicated past is rooted in a misunderstanding. However, what robs the story of deeper empathy is our inability to experience the relationship Jakob had with his father. Papa Toretto is the catalyst for this entire story, but his ghost doesn’t feel strong enough as an imprint on Jakob’s personality or motivations. In fact, the only characterization of Jakob the movie is interested in exploring is his escape from Dom’s shadow. This is partially explored in an amusing scene where Cypher asserts that the Toretto lineage has some Nordic in it; an obvious attempt to justify why the bi-racial Vin Diesel is related to the clearly white Jordana Brewster, clearly Italian John Cena, while Dom the character switches throughout the series from being coded as Italian or Latino. I can’t wait for the sequel where their long-lost cousin is Michael B. Jordan, avenging the death of their uncle Carlos Santana.

Everyone who seen a Fast movie could guess where the Jakob arc was headed. One character’s key decision to get to that point doesn’t make any sense, but it happens because the plot decides it’s time for the climax. But what makes even less sense is how this movie’s action turns into live-action Looney Tunes. Jakob driving a car off a cliff, only to be picked up mid-air by a jet plane, is like the 8th most egregious act in the film. At one point, Tej (Ludacris) drives a car vertically up a broken bridge. Dom catches multiple people with his car and nearly collapses a cave with his own brute strength.

At this point in the series, the action is so unrealistic that the characters themselves have to comment on it. But Roman’s (Tyrese) declaration to Tej and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) that the team is invincible lacks wit. We’ve seen characters in Pulp Fiction and the Toy Story franchise have insightful reflections on the preposterous nature of their circumstances. No such luck here, where the endgame for the meta-commentary is a lame punchline.

A large part of the silliness has been consistent with Justin Lin’s work with the franchise. The most egregious example, prior to F9, is Dom’s mid-air save of Letty in the Justin Lin directed Fast & Furious 6 (2013). However, as implausible as the stunt was, that film attempts to justify it when Letty asks Dom if he knew they’d both land safely on that car. He tells her, no, indicating he’d risk her life for her, earning Letty’s trust in Dom despite her recent bout of amnesia. So there was an effort made to make the action still act in service of the story. That element is completely absent from F9, as the film smashes the verisimilitude to pieces for reasons that have nothing to do with the story. As a result, the spectacle of the action is largely undermined. There are a few bright spots, such as a bloody brawl and foot chase between Dom and Jakob. But the remaining set pieces are so ridiculous that they induce laughter rather than awe.

For example, a big turning point of the film involves Tej and Roman having to… ahem… go to space to compromise the satellite that’s serving the bad guys. However, this plot point is clearly only here because fans memed it into existence, and it’s just shoehorned in here as a very obvious gag. It’s also the laziest bit of space travel I believe I’ve ever seen, with special effects that would look at home in a straight-to-video Airbud movie. If you were expecting to see First Man (2018) level space effects, F9 can’t even match Contact (1997). Instead of actually showing space, the camera is so tightly glued to Tej and Roman that you’d think the soundstage to the Friends reunion was 5 ft to the left.

When I began watching the Fast movies this year, I wanted to know whether they were truly representative of the complaints cinephiles have about modern Hollywood. In reviewing them all, it appears those assertions are mostly correct. Sure, there are attempts at character development, heart, continuity, and dramatic tension. But the advancement of special effects hampers these developments, as the movies are able to pull off any stunt imaginable even if it doesn’t make sense at all in the real world. Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with escapism, but it has to be strongly constructed escapism.

The construction of F9 fails not because it’s trying to be popcorn entertainment, but because it falls apart at the seams of storytelling tenets. When you can depict any gravity-defying act, when you can bring anyone back to life, when you dive so far into the fantasy that you lose the franchise’s emotional core, everything feels hollow. Just like the film’s seemingly magic cars, F9 is weightless.

So, where do we go from here? Well, considering the series’ further descent into parody, there’s only one place to go. There’s already been talk online, and Universal owns the film rights to both the Fast series and this other franchise. As Vin Diesel hints that he’ll do two more films before closing the door on Dominic Toretto, it’s inevitable that Fast & Furious will crossover with Jurassic Park. Because a scowling Dom driving intensely toward a velociraptor is not what we need, but what we deserve.

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