F9 continues the franchise’s downward trend, further garbling its outsized action and sentimentality into confectionery pap.
What started as a scrappy gearhead ripoff of Point Break in 2001’s The Fast and the Furious has now become a lumbering, endless Saturday morning cartoon in F9: The Fast Saga, the ninth and, of course, certainly not final entry in this machine. Vin Diesel is back as Dom Toretto, a one-time petty criminal/LA meatball who, along with his ragtag family of buddies, has become the most effective arm of the U.S. surveillance state, all while still making time for a cold Corona and a backyard barbecue.
F9 begins with Dom in repose, raising his little boy Brian off in the sticks somewhere with girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), expecting that his super-spying days are over. Too bad, because the villain from the last entry, super-hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron), has busted out of custody and disappeared along with some piece of tech that will do bad things for bad people. Dom wants no part of it, but before you can say “But she’s the one that murdered the mother of your child” (something that someone does in fact say, with a straight face), he comes along on the mission anyway. Which is appropriate, because it turns out that the mastermind behind the mastermind is Dom’s estranged brother, Jacob (John Cena).
Truth is, it would all be exhausting if it weren’t so dull. As this series has escalated in terms of both silliness and scope, it’s also double- and tripled-down on sentiment, and honestly you just can’t make us care about these characters as people when we’re also expected to wink-wink at the very intentional ridiculousness of the action sequences and chuckle heartily at the deliberate eye-roll dialogue where they complain about defying physics or maybe being immortal. It’d be so much easier to take if the movie weren’t oozing 10-year-old-boy attempts at poignancy or subjecting us to a full forty minutes of various flashbacks explaining ludicrous backstories to retcon stuff that’s already been retconned once before.
Okay, sure, but how’s the action? It’s fine. F9 sees director Justin Lin return after skipping the last couple installments, and he definitely has a knack for creating these multi-level vehicular free-for-alls. One in particular features a car chase through Edinburgh with a truck zapping everything with a giant magnet while Dom chases a zip-lining Jacob across rooftops. It’s as close to a giddy 2nd-unit-orchestrated thrill as you’re going to get, though, as most of the big sequences are riddled with dumpy digital VFX, like an early chase through a jungle minefield that seems transplanted here directly from a late-’90s Stephen Sommers flick. The numerous fistfights are even worse, with Vin Diesel’s stunt double being very conspicuously concealed by the shredded editing.
Ever since the series sort of reinvented itself with the beloved Fast Five, it’s been chasing this alchemical combination of outsized ludicrousness, deeply silly winking, and dumb bro pathos that it achieved exactly once, during the runway sequence at the end of Fast & Furious 6. It’s seeming increasingly obvious that they’ll never find this sweet spot again.