F9: The Fast Saga (2021)
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriters: Daniel Casey, Justin Lin
Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, John Cena, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang, Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron
The key discourse surrounding the Fast and Furious franchise is its ever-increasing absurdity. The Fast and the Furious followed a cop infiltrating a street racing gang, and by Furious 7 the series’ heroes were jumping cars out of planes to fall perfectly onto a single secured road in the mountains of Azerbaijan. The franchise has seen its fair share of dead characters return, and most of the main cast (including Brian O’Conner, played by the late Paul Walker) have managed to come away from each adventure unscathed, ready to sip Corona and eat barbecue at Dom’s place. F9 maintains the absurdity of the previous films, but fails to live up to the heart of those predecessors.
F9 follows Dom (Vin Diesel) and his family as they pursue his brother, Jakob (John Cena), a seasoned spy who is after yet another world-ending MacGuffin, Project Aries – a sphere divided in half which allows the one who holds its key to control all of the weapon systems in the world. Though the drag racing is at a minimum, there are plenty of car-based action scenes that help to maintain the original notion of the franchise. Alongside the globe-trotting chases are flashbacks to Dom and Jakob’s past, including a portrayal of their father’s death as described in The Fast and the Furious.
These flashback scenes are ret-conning at its best, crafting a bond between Dom and Jakob in real time that feels as if it could have been there all along. Jakob was banished by Dom because he believes Jakob killed their father, and it’s clearer now more than ever why Dom seeks to build and protect his new family.
The film could stand to have more John Cena, whose cool demeanor contrasts with the fiery Dom, their scenes together being reminiscent of those between Diesel’s lead and The Rock’s Luke Hobbs in Fast Five – two muscly stars face-to-face, exchanging verbal jousts before they finally get around to exchanging blows – but Jakob’s energy keeps it from feeling too similar. Jakob also explains why Dom and the family were brought into the world of espionage despite being a random group of street racers from Los Angeles, since Jakob has presumably worked as a spy since his exit from the Toretto family.
As for The Rock, it is his and Jason Statham’s absence (not to mention Paul Walker’s) that is really felt in this film. The “family” is reduced to Dom, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Mia (Jordana Brewster), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) for much of the runtime, and they are often split up between vehicles, locations, and emotional distance. There are a lot of roomy shots that highlight the lack of a full crew, and the locations are noticeably larger than those of the previous films. Dom feels similarly as isolated to how he did in The Fate of the Furious – he doesn’t spend much time talking to the other crew members without a walkie talkie – and the film misses the interactions of Hobbs, Shaw and the rest of the enjoyable characters from the previous films, with Tej, Ramsey and Roman offering the best dynamic of F9, yet still being hardly able to carry what feels like half of the film.
While Fast and Furious is hardly renowned for its performances, the actors tend to be excellent at naturally embodying their characters (particularly Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson). There is, however, some inexcusable nonchalance that ruins the (debatably) tense sequences and heavy, heartfelt moments. In an early action scene, Michelle Rodriguez runs as if there are no bullets being fired at her – “run” might even be too strong a word for the motion she was engaged in. It can be hard to buy Vin Diesel’s performance in the more serious emotional beats because he seems dazed and disconnected, delivering one-liners as if they were just told to him for the first time right before filming.
Of course, everyone is really going to F9 for the over-the-top action sequences. Long, drawn-out chase scenes involving car magnets test the boundaries of audience credulity and can be a slog to sit through as waves of faceless soldiers are mowed down or tossed about. The best of the action are the fist fights between Dom and Jakob, Mia and Letty with faceless soldiers, or Tej and Roman with faceless soldiers. It takes away from the monotony of cars driving, slamming things, and ultimately not doing much at all. Towards the end, a key point of an action sequence is told through montage as another character monologues, and it leaves one wondering why the film spent so much time on the boring parts instead of what should be the tensest part of the scene. They’re absolutely absurd, over-the-top, and well-CGI’d and choreographed, but that doesn’t make up for how poorly paced they feel for the most part.
F9 was never going to be a masterpiece of cinema, but it’s also a weaker installment compared to the last five (maybe even six) films in the franchise. There are some incredible moments and interesting talking points for those who are interested in the “universe,” but, overall, the movie lacks enough to carry its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime (which feels like an eternity).
Hopefully the whole family can come together in the tenth film and bring back the excitement of watching a close-knit group experience the everyday trials of international drag racing spies.
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