Fast & Furious 9 review: This outrageous action saga isn't out of gas just yet
Despite a garbled plot, F9 delivers on the spectacle front – and rediscovers a little of the franchise's heart.
Martin Scorsese famously once compared Marvel movies to theme park rides and while his comments were intended to be disparaging, films like those and the Fast & Furious movies are surely intended at least in part to be just that: rollercoaster rides. They deliver spectacle – outrageous action sequences and jaw-dropping stunts – and get your adrenaline pumping.
On this front, the latest outing from the Fast saga absolutely delivers – and means the long-delayed action flick serves as a perfect relaunch vehicle (no pun intended) for multiplexes as they reopen in earnest following months of pandemic-mandated shutdowns. At the screening I attended, one especially spectacular sequence of vehicular mayhem was greeted with spontaneous applause by the audience and a rallying cry of "Cinema!!" from one fan ("cinema" of course being the very thing that Scorsese once argued films like this were not.)
If you're a casual cinema-goer, then, who's paid to see wild car chases and to witness Vin Diesel pummel his enemies – in another parallel to the MCU, Diesel's hero Dominic Toretto might sport a cotton vest instead of a cape but is now to all intents and purposes a superhero, performing one godlike feat after the other – then F9 will tick all your boxes.
But what Marty missed was that these movies do have some substance beyond just the purely superficial – and for fans who've become invested, who've stuck with this franchise through thick and thin and know that it can deliver more than just spectacle when it's firing on all cylinders, the experience of watching Fast & Furious 9 is still a great deal of fun but slightly less satisfying.
Justin Lin, the most prolific Fast director having helmed four of the films, returns to the driving seat after skipping the last two entries and is also credited as co-writer for the first time along with Daniel Casey, delivering a typically rock 'em sock 'em adventure which sees Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) come out of retirement to face off against an old foe and to resolve some unfinished family business, with franchise regulars Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) all along for the ride.
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Perhaps its biggest problem is that Fast & Furious 9 feels supremely overstuffed – it wants to give you everything and all at once, but the end result is that too many characters and plotlines are given short shrift, despite the film's near two-and-a-half hour runtime.
The return of Charlize Theron's psychopathic hacker Cipher – the chief antagonist in the last film who murdered the mother of Dom's child – is what spurs Diesel's characters back into action, but the film later seems to forget about her entirely amidst a spy caper plot that sees the Fast family hunt down another technological MacGuffin (in what's essentially a rehash of Furious 7's God's Eye plot).
Jordana Brewster also returns to the fold as Dom's sister Mia after skipping the previous film, but despite the film's (and the franchise's) family-centric ethos, she doesn't get much to do here beyond kick a few bad guys in the face. Similarly underserved are returning characters from 2006 entry Tokyo Drift, with fan favourites Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), Twinkie (Bow Wow) and Earl Hu (Jason Tobin) all making little more than glorified cameos. Even the much-vaunted return of Han (Sung Kang) – killed off earlier in the series but resurrected here in what is, somehow, far from the film's least likely plot development – ends up feeling strangely incidental amidst the chaos.
The part of the movie that works best, and so stands out in what's a very crowded film, is the backstory that fuels the rivalry between Diesel's Dom and his long-lost brother, the film's chief antagonist Jakob (John Cena, a smart bit of casting that somewhat helps fill the hole left by the absence of Dwayne Johnson's Luke Hobbs).
The driving force (again, no pun intended) behind the best Fast & Furious movies was always the dynamic and interplay between Dom and Paul Walker's cop-gone-rogue Brian O'Conner – with Walker's tragic death in 2013, the franchise didn't just lose one of its leads, it lost its heart too, and no amount of increasingly ludicrous stunts can make up for that.
F9, though, goes some way towards repairing that with a series of flashback sequences which explore the backstory of young Jakob, played by Peaky Blinders' Finn Cole, and young Dom, portrayed by Vinnie Bennett. These scenes capture something of the look and feel of the first The Fast and the Furious from two decades ago, with Bennett in particular so impressive, so eerily accurate at points in his impersonation of Diesel, that you're left thinking a prequel film (or films) wouldn't be the worst idea once the core Fast saga wraps up.
There are two more films set to follow F9 – with the 10th film in the franchise reportedly being split into two parts. Even as a longtime fan of the series, it feels like the right decision. The franchise continues to deliver brilliantly inventive action moments but was at risk of starting to feel a little soulless – Fast & Furious 9, despite its wacky plot and rather garbled structure, does in its best moments go some ways to finding a little of that heart again. If Diesel and co. can pull off an endgame that delivers on this franchise's two core tenets – mad stuff with cars and a genuine commitment to character – then there might just be a little more gas left in the tank.