As long as we’ve had cars, we’ve had people pushing the limits, going as fast as they possibly can, even at the risk of life and limb. Car racing movies are almost as old as cinema itself, with 1913’s The Speed Kings one of the first. Street racing is another level of thrill and excitement, mythically a chance for downtrodden members of society to pull one over on The Man and simultaneously prove their machismo by flaunting laws and winning “the pink slip”.
There were already quite a few movies romanticizing this street racing world when 2001’s The Fast and The Furious zoomed onto the scene, but its mix of fast cars, sexy women, impossible stunts, and emphasis on family added up to a huge blockbuster. Perfect for teen boys, a key demographic in cinema, the hugely successful franchise turned out to be popular with everyone in the family.
Twenty years and nine films later (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is part of the franchise even if it didn’t get a numbered title), the latest entry in the franchise is simply titled F9 and it shows that with the right formula, a film can go on to be a blockbuster even with massive flaws and incongruities.
One of the key elements of F9 is a backstory for Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), the paterfamilias of his street racing – and now secret agent – crew. He’s tough, he’s muscular, he’s a cliché male role model, but how did he get that way? Turns out that a pivotal moment in his life was back when he was in his late teens: His father Jack (J.D. Pardo) is killed in a tense car race and young Dom (Vinnie Bennett) and his young brother Jakob (Finn Cole) are shattered. The film returns to that traumatic moment many times as it’s examined and re-examined à la the 2008 thriller Vantage Point.
In the present, Dom (Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are raising their cute-as-a-button little boy Brian (a dual role played by brothers Isaac and Immanuel Holdane) when they learn that a plane transporting their sometime-boss Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and the evil Cipher (Charlize Theron) was attacked and crashed in the fictional Central American country of “Montecinto”. Time for a rescue mission that looks like it’s straight out of The A-Team, but still, it’s fun if completely illogical (are villains really that awful at hitting their targets even with automatic weapons?)
There’s a secret weapon that’s so powerful it’s “fifty years ahead of its time”, an amoral bad guy who might just be in it to prove himself to Dom, his brother Jakob (John Cena) reappearing, a team of villains straight out of central casting (notably including Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), one of the few fun and interesting characters on screen). Guest appearances include Quennie (Helen Mirren), Leysa (Cardi B), Sean (Lucas Black), Twinkie (Shad Moss), Elle (Anna Sawai) and a few others whose appearance will definitely please fans of the series.
But F9 also recognizes the reality that it’s become a parody of street racing films, with stunts so outlandish that even the characters laugh about the improbability even as we realize just how little fun they’re all having. At one point Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) asks his comic foil sidekick Roman (Tyrese Gibson) if they’re actually invincible, like superheroes. Roman teases Tej in response, but never really answers the question.
Therein lies the problem with the franchise. The story doesn’t make sense. There are huge continuity errors that will have you ask “wait, how did they get here?” and some notable stunts that are so impossible that they exist as a chance to admire modern CGI visual effects and nothing more. The characters are never really in peril, we’re confident in the fact that our sarcastic heroes will save the day and have some snappy dialog along the way. And that gets a bit boring, truth be told.
F9 is entertaining, but the story isn’t much deeper or more logical than what the industry refers to as a sizzle reel, a compilation of visual effects with a unified audio track. Yes, F9 has a great soundtrack. Yes, the stunts are (mostly) cool and exciting. But overall the film’s pacing is clumsy, the narrative connection between events is lacking (is there a director’s cut with all the missing footage?) and most of the actors play their characters with the relaxed panache of summer playhouse actors during the last week of their play; it’s enjoyable in as much as we are in on the joke, but it’s a long way from the gritty tension and unpredictability of The Fast and the Furious from twenty years earlier.
Not to worry, fans, this franchise is so strong that it can survive another banal entry. After all, isn’t it all around beautiful people, crazy stunts, earnest and insipid dialog, all mixed with a strong dose of pride, integrity, and that ultimate mantra from the entire franchise: family. Honestly? Go see F9. In the theater, on a big screen. Turn off your brain, stop worrying about logic, continuity, plausibility, healthy relationships, or where they go from here. There’ll be a Fast & Furious 10 too, and I imagine it’ll be more of the same. And I’ll go see that one too.
Dad at the Movies Note: While this is a very violent movie, most of the violence is rather cartoony. Lots of people are killed as collateral damage but it’s breezed over and isn’t important to the storyline. Younger children will love the action and music but might be upset by the frequent fistfights, however. Pre-teen kids? Depends on the child.