F9: The Fast Saga (2021)
Directed by: Justin Lin
Written by: Daniel Casey, Justin Lin
Starring: Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang, Tyrese Gibson, Vin Diesel
F9: THE FAST SAGA
Directed by Justin Lin
As lockdown finally comes to an end, I bet many cinemagoers can’t wait to spend quality time with the family. By that, I mean the street-racing gang come world-savers we first met in the Fast and Furious: an above-average Point Break rip-off that somehow spawned a record-breaking series spanning decades. In all honesty, this is a series I never expected to get a sequel – never mind eight of them, a spin-off, and an animated series. I also wouldn’t have expected to actively look forward to more in my mid-thirties. So finally, after a delay of over a year, I was delighted to have a reunion.
From when we saw Big Vin and company nicking DVD players, it’s been a long, strange trip to the super-bloated finale of this latest entry. Despite constantly rabbiting on about faaaamily in a sad gravelly voice, Dom (Diesel) has a secret brother named Jacob (Cena) he’s never talked about. So different, yet so very alike, his little bro is a death-defying international spy who drives like a maniac. Only where Dom has his family, he’s got himself teamed up with a bratty rich kid and some heavies to hunt down yet another McGuffin that can end the world several times. Luckily, here to do what the military and world governments seemingly can’t, we have the ragtag group of drivers to take him on: the aforementioned Dom, his wife Letty (Rodriguez), plus friends Roman (Gibson), Ramsey (Emmanuel), Mia (Brewster) and Tej (Bridges). Fans may be disappointed Hobbes and Shaw can’t be there, though maybe the reappearance of Han (Kang), long believed dead, will soften the blow. It’s their biggest adventure yet, with the globe-trotting plot taking our characters to Central America, Tokyo, Azerbaijan, and my beautiful hometown of Edinburgh, among many other locations. At least one of which is very unexpected. In all of them, they risk their lives, violate numerous traffic laws, and blow shit up.
In terms of the wider arc, The Fast and Furious franchise is increasingly resembling that game where someone writes a paragraph then passes it on to someone else to write the next, then someone else writes the next – and so on. Which is odd, considering this is the first film since 2006 to take on new writers. They aren’t women, like Michelle Rodriguez wanted (though her and her female co-stars have so much more to do this time around, so they likely took notes). But long-time creative and director Justin Lin, plus his collaborator Daniel Casey, evidently understands the fundamentals: fast cars, fantastic feats, and heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality. There’s an enjoyable but awkward conflict between the overly serious tragedy of the Toretto family feud and the ridiculousness of the film’s set-pieces. At times, one wonders if leading man Vin Diesel thinks he’s making something altogether more thoughtful. After all, Dom is his Rocky Balboa and undoubtedly the part he’ll be best known for. The temptation to up the personal stakes for him must be a massive draw to the actor. But those terms he’s awkwardly pairing up elements of the Italian Stallion’s second and fourth fights.
It doesn’t help that newcomer Cena’s physicality isn’t matched by his slightly wooden performance, meaning the juicy part of a Dom from the other side of the road feels a tad wasted. Both action men share a brooding intensity that serves the blood is thicker than water motif. However, it also means the foot comes off the gas when it’s most needed and the attempt to personalise the conflict further, through flashbacks and a misplaced dream sequence, actually made me care about it less. Their key fight scene is still impressive enough, doubtlessly benefitting from the series having another professional wrestler on board. But the most likeable villains, such as the unpredictable brothers Shaw or even Cypher (Charlize Theron who features all too briefly), have been more roughish less po-faced. Granted, in the past, we’ve had numerous doses of melodrama. But typically, the soap opera stories are done with a knowing wink: characters we thought had died coming back, amnesia, secret children, betrayals, and the family’s unconventional recruitment process of hiring people who have spied on them or tried to kill them. F9 seems to play up the tortured side of its protagonist at the expense of its fun.
Not that F9 can’t laugh itself. When it wants to be, this is the funniest entry to date. Among other things, there are times when it takes a wrecking ball to the fourth wall. For instance, a hilarious subplot in which Roman wonders if he and the gang may even be invincible because of the many times they’ve escaped unscathed. He has a point: the elaborate action in this one is unparalleled elsewhere in the canon and possibly cinema as a whole. Cars explode, cross rope bridges or drive off cliffs like it’s the most normal thing in the world – and that’s only the first 20 minutes. They don’t always land: the reliance on magnets eventually becomes repetitive, and it’s maybe a little too extravagant by the end. Still, it’s impressive the series still finds ways to up the ante of The Fate of the Furious’ submarine shenanigans. And believe me, the third act (which challenges viewers not to snigger at it) makes that sequence look like a physics documentary. Newton be damned. Tread carefully though, as there are spoilers aplenty on the web and it’s best seen without knowing what’s coming. But needless to say if one were to return to this having seen just the first, as I know at least one of our staff is doing, they’ll feel lost.
In a way it’s hard to recommend or condemn this film. It simply is what it is: another Fast and Furious. By now, the audience will know what they’re watching it for. As my colleague Jim eloquently said, this could be the best or worst depending on what that is. If you want big stunts and then some, you’ll love it. It’s the perfect popcorn flick and a reminder of how special big-screen entertainment can be. It’s a love letter to the fans too, with so much to reward those who have stuck with the brand. There are numerous gags, cameos, and loose ends dating back to the early 00s getting addressed. However, if you want some raw street racing, and by this point I don’t know why you would, or dislike how the franchise has gone this will do nothing to change your mind. For me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of James Wan’s tighter, more emotional, and better-paced part 7, or Hobbe’s debut in Fast 5. I possibly preferred the romantic comedy of Hobbes and Shaw too. Nevertheless, F9 is the Fast and Furious saga at its fastest and most furious. With only one victory lap left for the original team, reportedly taking place across two entries, I have no idea what they can still do to up the ante. But I know I’ll race to the cinema to see it.