Director: Justin Lin
Stars: John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson
There’s a point in nearly any long-running TV series or soap opera when desperate writers will start to retcon character histories to bring in hitherto unknown relatives (usually younger siblings) in an effort to tell new stories and freshen up the cast list. It usually coincides with a tipping point. The fast downhill toward obsolescence and redundancy. It’s a trope so well-worn that cannier shows have even approached it deliberately or with a sense of built-in irony.
Fast & Furious 9 (or F9 as its marketeers would have us call it), finds the improbable $6 billion franchise embracing this treacherous trope with muscly outstretched arms, introducing us to Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) younger brother Jakob (John Cena)… a character never even nominally referred to previously in a series built on the principles of family.
Okay, fine. We’ve already done Dom-goes-bad and Letty-(Michelle Rodriguez)-has-amnesia. What’s another hoary old cliché in a series this lovably dumb? But it might turn out to be the one that breaks the camel’s back. Not in terms of box office. These movies are destined to run and run. They’re a financial juggernaut. But in a deeper sense.
Much as we all want this to be a screaming Behemoth of excess and stupidity, it really feels as though F9 does away with a lot of the good graces the series has built up over the years. There’s only so much insult you can add to injury.
Cena is all-the-way bad, and not in the sense of how much of a Bad Guy he is. His Jakob is forgettable, ineffectual, a smudge on the series. In a completely unnecessary and unwelcome series of flashbacks that add 20+ minutes to the running time, we’re given something approaching emotional motivation for Jakob’s villainy, but F9 crucially miscalculates in many other areas. What is he trying to achieve in the movie’s present? Aside from eschewing some cringe-worthy daddy issues, what is it he wants? What is he doing? You’ll never know.
The plot, such as it is, is that Dom and Letty are called out of retirement once again to stop Jakob from assembling the pieces of a Bondian doohickey called Ares; a football-like object that will grant him the power to control any piece of tech on the planet. But to what end? In his arbitrary aircraft hanger, Jakob has prior F&F villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) captive in a laser cage or some bullshit, and she takes him to task over his flimsy motivations, but we never get a straight answer. And this scene also folds in another doom-laden tipping-point that F9 seems to have reached… self-parody.
Up until now F&F has been gloriously guileless, and that sincerity has been it’s bullet-proof vest. But F9 starts breaking down those defenses. Comedy foil Roman (MVP Tyrese Gibson) starts openly questioning the plausibility of his own luck. It’s played as a ‘bit’ for him and Tej (Ludacris) to bounce back and forth, but it places the longevity of the series front and centre.
Sitting and watching this thunderously noisy chore of a picture, you realise that Roman is right. They are all invincible. Anyone who dies will almost certainly be resurrected and the creatives behind the scenes won’t even have the common courtesy to come up with a proper explanation. And, in the world of F&F, all villains eventually become part of Dom’s Corona-guzzling family anyway. There’s no other alternative. It’s coming for Cipher, you’ll see.
So if nobody can die and if nobody’s ever an antagonist for long… what are we watching? Where are the stakes? Roman’s unease at what he’s discovered is like the opening of some dreaded Pandora’s Box. Once the idea is out, there’s no stopping it. Is it a coincidence that the moment he has this revelation (not long into the picture, I might add) also marks the last time anything interesting happens?
Up until this point F9 is an absolute blast. Granted, you’ve still got those awful flashbacks to overcome, but an extended sequence in which Dom and the gang are chased through a jungle cluttered with mines is up there with the series’ peak silliness. Reader, I was cheering. Everything after is a total waste of your time.
The mid-section of the film is painful as F9 reels out every old face it can muster for scant fan service, ranging from Helen Mirren (who actually gives a fuck about her character?) to blasts from the past who add precisely zero to the story going forward (Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang). Not even a bewildering 30 second cameo from Cardi B can liven up this dirge. Once Jakob has inevitably got all his McGuffin pieces in a row, we’re on to the all-out assault of the third act. Returning director Justin Lin (who skipped 7, 8 and Hobbs & Shaw) throws a lot at us. Magnets. Space travel. Armoured mega-trucks. Zany fun + zany fun + zany fun… right…? Nuh-uh. But it all becomes so much noise. The action is unclear and uninteresting, and it goes on longer than that runway in Fast 6, pummeling you into submission.
At one point someone stresses the importance of physics and I nearly choked. The Fast series has played generously with the laws of physics before – wonderfully so – but F9 just abandons the idea of reason all together. That sounds exciting, and fun, but it doesn’t equate to exciting and fun. It equates to tedium and annoyance. Along with the Dwayne Johnson-sized plot holes literally everywhere, it just adds to the overall sense that we are, collectively, having the piss taken out of us. That, like the MCU, F&F has gotten too big for its boots and now feels relaxed enough to shovel any old shit our way, assuming (quite rightly, probably) that we’ll turn up regardless. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me nine times (ten counting Hobbs & Shaw), shame on me.
I genuinely did expect better. Hit and miss as they are, the Fast series represents a wonderfully enticing kind of escapism. When the series is on fire (Fast Five and Furious 7 particularly), it’s some of the most enjoyable nonsense around. F9 feels like a different kind of trash, however. The kind that treats its audience with disdain because its already robbed them of their money, so the quality of the product is absolutely immaterial.
Give Roman and Tej their own franchise and stop wasting our time.