Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Vin Diesel and John Cena in F9

F9 has too much family-drama runway between the fast and furious stuff

Vin Diesel and John Cena in F9
Photo: Universal Pictures

There aren’t many jokes to make about part nines. Third installments have outdated cracks about 3-D, and maybe part fours can be appended with a Leprechaun-referencing In Space. But even in a seemingly endless sequel-happy era, not many movie series reach nine entries—especially not without doing some kind of reboot, whether soft or unsparing. (Most that do are of the slasher variety.) That The Fast And The Furious, the unassuming Point Break knockoff from 20 years ago, has made it all the way to F9 is the last vestige of its underdog status. The vehicle has been rebuilt, re-customized, and re-polished multiple times over the past two decades, with that B-movie engine remaining as its only original part.

Well, that and Vin Diesel. Yes, other cast members from the very first film flit in and out of the narrative, including Jordana Brewster, who re-returns for F9 in the role of Mia Toretto, sister of Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. For that matter, Diesel himself sat out a couple of installments early on. But he recommitted himself to Dom at the tail end of Justin Lin’s The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, and after missing parts seven and eight, Lin has now also re-joined the family. Meanwhile, longtime special sauce Dwayne Johnson has been swapped out for another wrestler-turned-action-hero-turned-sometime-comedian, John Cena. Apparently, Johnson and Diesel did not actually bond over Coronas and backyard barbecues; the behind-the-scenes drama of these movies has become as fast, furious, and soapy as the movies themselves.

For the moment, Diesel seems to have asserted his status as the Fast patriarch, reshaping an all-star ensemble back into a support system for Dom’s family drama. F9 is borne of an alternate world where the once and future Riddick emerges victorious over one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and Oscar-winning ass-kicker Charlize Theron gets confined to a literal villain box for a glorified cameo, trading Star Wars-related quips with a Eurotrashy mini-boss. (At least Theron looks like she’s having some fun, of the low-effort, single-day-of-shooting variety.)

The movie’s deference to Diesel’s whims, sincerity, and ego all at once is part of its charm—though perhaps a smaller share of it here than in the past. F9 opens with Dom in classic action-hero-recluse mode, holed up in a remote cabin with his sometimes-dead life partner Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and raising the young son he discovered in the last movie. Soon enough, team mainstays Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) come calling with an urgent mission to track down Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), their mysterious handler. Letty is ready to roll, while Dom is reluctant—and in a brief but galling moment, gets shamed for his entirely reasonable desire to stay with his kid, rather than drop everything to help a guy who occasionally hires him for freelance gigs.

Dom gets drawn back into the fray anyway, because this newest world-domination plot leads back to his secret younger brother, Jakob (Cena). Of course, eagle-eyed fans of the original film will recall… nothing. There’s nothing in The Fast And The Furious about Dom having a kid brother, though F9 does offer a stirring re-enactment of the time Dom used a wrench to beat the living shit out of someone. Lin, who co-wrote the screenplay this time around, is convinced enough in the epic power of the Fast series to indulge in a half-hour’s worth of retcon flashbacks featuring Young Dom (played, in an old-fashioned blessing, by actual actor Vinnie Bennett, doing a credible Diesel impression without any visible CG trickery). Even as this fleshes out Dom and Jakob’s relationship, it manages to diminish Brewster’s poor Mia, who somehow doesn’t figure into any of half a dozen scenes set during Dom’s youth. Moreover, Lin’s writing just isn’t as fleet as his directing—and his directing in F9 isn’t as fleet as his work on Fast Five or Fast & Furious 6.

F9
F9
Photo: Universal Pictures

Despite its attempts to rev up new world-saving missions almost immediately, F9 takes a while to get going. It doesn’t help that the first big set piece is inexplicably heavy on Gibson’s Roman, who has never met a space designed for a one-liner he couldn’t fill with a half-formed non-joke. From there, the two-and-a-half ambling hours make some entertaining detours, especially those that involve multiple returning Tokyo Drift cast members. It says something about the turgid repetition of Dom’s family crises that these glimpses of characters from the least essential Fast movie start to look like tantalizing side stories that warrant further exploration.

That’s not a call for more Hobbs & Shaw-style spinoffs, necessarily. But it is noticeable how much baggage Lin must lug around before he stages a genuinely spectacular action sequence, like this movie’s extended chase through Edinburgh, which features high-powered electromagnets, a zipline, mid-air tackles, and driving that is intentionally bad, rather than just flashily life-endangering. This multi-plane demolition derby has the giddy moving pieces of the best later-period Fasts; ditto the nutty climax, where more magnet mayhem is intercut with a voyage to where no street-racing sequel has dared go before. Fans will have fun.

The problem is all the runway in between the highlights, even longer than the endless literal concrete of the Fast & Furious 6 climax. After a reinvention as a warmer, more diverse Mission: Impossible (practically name-checked here), the series has wound up more like a mid-period James Bond movie in its channel-surfing bloat. Instead of frequent TBS commercial breaks, there are scenes where Dom and Letty discuss their relationship priorities. If Letty’s arc here involves some kind of conflict between the domesticity she never quite asked for and the globe-hopping death-defiance she seems addicted to, the movie doesn’t bother resolving it. It’s too confident that part nine is not the end.

Like most series that make it this far, Fast And Furious is now mostly about its own history and tendencies: How will enemies turn to allies, how will presumed-dead characters re-appear with unconvincing explanations, how will cars soar through the air in new and series-topping ways? The franchise-maintenance answer is, the same way they have before. Maybe that’s the future stereotype about part nines: They’re the point where even a dependably fun series starts to care more about this stuff than their audience does.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!