The ninth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise begins a few years on from the previous entry, with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) living rurally in retirement with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his son Brian, now a toddler. When a plane carrying Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) is taken down while he is taking Cipher (Charlize Theron) into custody, Dom and his crew are brought back into action to prevent Dom’s long-lost brother, Jakob (John Cena) in his attempt to steal hardware that will allow control to be taken of satellites orbiting the globe. The mission becomes a family affair, as sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) joins Dom’s mission, and an ally long thought dead is found to be alive, as Dom learns more about the circumstances behind his father’s death in the late-1980s.
The plot described above is of little consequence when discussing the plot of F9. The end goal of what is wanted from the satellite is unclear, and it has long been the case that new villains are brought into the fold by film’s end. There are few surprises to be found in the story, and the continual scope creep of the series continues, as the crew even ventures into space in this entry; a crew that began life stealing DVD players is now the go-to for preventing international espionage.
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Much as with 2019’s Hobbs and Shaw spin-off, the series is now concerned solely with a presenting a skeleton plot on which to hang action set-pieces and good-natured humour showing us the dynamics of Dom’s surrogate family. If F9 succeeds at all on an emotional level, it is in the strong hint that this ‘family’ is exactly that: a replacement for a family that Dom lost three key elements of (mother, father, brother) before he was out of his teens.
Where the film strains credulity – beyond the usual disregard for physics and the effects of accidents on the body, which is almost a positive for a series that has long prioritised action and enjoyment over realism – is in the soap opera dynamics. Must like an American daytime drama, or even an 80s prime-time equivalent, death is not always permanent, and characters/family members never before mentioned are introduced abruptly, with little regard for continuity or logic – we are one step away here from Bobby Ewing having been in the shower all along. This is not, in truth, a flaw, when the series as a whole is taken into consideration, but it is important that viewers new to the series understand that this is the deal they make with the franchise when committing.
F9 sees the return of director Justin Lin. Lin directed every entry from the third (which is also the sixth, but the timeline of the series is for another time), through to Fast 6 in 2013, before leaving to helm 2016’s Star Trek Beyond. Watching the set-pieces in this film really brings home how much the series has missed him. The flair displayed in the sequences, as well as the joy they engender reminds us that this is his series, and James Wan, F. Gary Grey et al are not in the same league when it comes to visual style and big screen action.
Performances are stronger than in the last full entry, with Theron in particular displaying none of the inexplicable flatness that she showed last time out. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham (with the latter in a small mid-credits cameo only) are not overly missed, and John Cena displays decent screen presence and convinces as a Toretto. This is balanced by a few pacing problems. The film – after a flashback to the death of Toretto, the elder – races to an opening set piece that ends in a thrilling rope-bridge sequence, that is happening before we have really had the time needed to engage with the film. Characters like Cipher are used sparingly to the point that we forget she is in the film at times; Jordana Brewster’s return is abrupt; and our returning ‘dead’ character’s escape from that situation is raced through without a decent explanation. The film only comes alive after its visit to Edinburgh – its strongest section – around the halfway mark.
F9‘s biggest flaw is that it has no real emotional core – though it tries hard with the brother angle. For all the high-octane thrills, the series has committed, always, to its themes of family, and there are usually reasons behind character choices: such as in the last entry Dom finding out he has a son. It is a compliment to the series as a whole that the absence of this matters.
This film feels a little bit like a greatest hits entry, with Shea Whigham and Helen Mirren returning for short cameos, and even Lucas Black from Tokyo Drift, and the globe-trotting feeling dizzying at times. Most entries in the series would work as a first watch for a newcomer. Here, there is a lot that would go unexplained if none of the other films had been watched first. This adds further to the ever-growing soap opera nature of this franchise.
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Fast & Furious 9 is the very definition of a middling entry. Stronger than the earliest entries, and – debatably – both Fast 8 and Hobbs and Shaw, there is little here to match the series’ sweet spot of the fifth-seventh entries. The stunts are as fun as ever, and the performers enjoyable to watch, but little, if any, of this will really stick in the mind after viewing.
Fast & Furious 9 is out now at cinemas.