F9: The Fast Saga
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Charlize Theron, John Cena, Finn Cole, Sung Kang, Anna Sawai, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russel, Lucas Black, Shad Moss, Thue Ersted Rasmussen, Don Omar, Shea Whigham, Vinnie Bennett, J.D. Pardo, Micheal Rooker,
Runtime: 143 minutes
The Fast and the Furious franchise has seesawed in quality throughout it’s 20 year (!!!) history. Strong characters played by a charismatic cast make all the films more enjoyable than similarly schlocky action movies but after the iconic original film the series devolved with a couple disparate sequels before the fifth and sixth installments tied everything back together for a pair of gloriously ridiculous thrillers. After Furious 7 bid a heartfelt farewell to original cast member Paul Walker, who died partially through production, and his character Brian O’Connor, the most recent entries, The Fate of the Furious and spin-off Hobbs and Shaw fell somewhat short of their predecessors, despite still being quite enjoyable on their own terms. Fast 9, which has a handful of other titles including The Fast Saga for some reason, brings back series MVP director Justin Lin and multiple fan-favorite characters while pushing the series to even greater heights of absurd action in an attempt to get back on course but it still can’t match the ludicrous (pun intended) action and excitement of those middle chapters.
Anyone who has ever seen a Fast movie knows that Vin Diesel’s Dominic “Dom” Toretto and his team see themselves as a family, as they tend to say as much at least a dozen times a movie. But Fast 9 highlights a hypocrisy in Dom’s familial philosophy by introducing his estranged brother Jakob (John Cena) who neither Dom nor his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) have ever mentioned. To explain the roots of the brotherly conflict the film returns to Dom’s gritty Los Angeles origins in a series of flashbacks that explore the death of his father, always a crucial motivator for him, in greater detail than past films.
Fast 9 begins with Dom and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in retirement at a remote farm raising Dom’s son Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holdane). When team/family members Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) arrive with a distress message from CIA contact Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) the former criminals resume their duties as outlaw vigilantes to help him, although Dom does so reluctantly. The rescue mission leads the team to cross paths with Jakob, now a rogue spy, who is working with Fate of the Furious villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) on a doomsday plot. The team’s efforts to stop them force Dom to grapple with his past and shocks them all with the discovery that beloved friend Han (Sung Kang), who was presumed dead following events shown in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Furious 7, is actually still alive.
The best thing about the Jakob reveal is that it brings Dom’s character back to his roots. Vinnie Bennett makes for a convincing younger version of the character in the flashbacks, which are well-handled with a nice grainy filter and appropriately intense vibe that calls back to the more edgy, intimate first film well. Diesel also gives a strong performance as Dom must revisit the most painful moments of his past with the added weight of his new fatherly responsibilities. Jakob himself is a fine character, but nothing more. Cena’s best moments come when highlighting the younger Toretto’s sneering arrogance but the film contradicts itself by trying to make him both a serious danger and possibly redeemable. The wrestler-turned actor also doesn’t bring as much to the film’s spectacle as one might expect. He and Diesel only clash physically once and while the fight is certainly intense and enjoyable it’s also briefer and less elaborate than fans would probably hope for. The other major benefit of Jakob’s involvement in the story is that it leads to the return of Mia, who retired with Brian to raise their children in Furious 7. Getting Brewster back is another way in which the film tries to recapture the appeal of earlier installments and her warm performance is a pleasure. As the most compassionate member of the immediate Toretto family it’s not surprising that Mia is more willing to believe there’s good in Jakob and the dynamic between them is the most compelling part of the familial conflict.
Han’s return is the best bit of fan service in a film full of it. Kang always made him the most suave, effortlessly cool member on the team and he slips back into that role excellently but the script also gives additional depth to the character that allows the actor to turn in one of the more nuanced performances in the ensemble as Han grapples both with his past and new additions to his life. As unexpected as it is the Fast franchise has created what’s maybe the most expansive cinematic universe this side of Marvel or Star Wars and while Fast 9‘s espionage-based plot is maybe more convoluted than necessary it does allow the lengthy second act to provide what is essentially a tour through some of its most unique and disparate corners. As Letty and Mia cross paths with Han, Roman and Tej are sent to meet some other Tokyo Drift cast members (including Lucas Black’s Sean and Jason Tobin’s Earl) who are experimenting with crazy new car tech, and Dom gets intel from Queenie Shaw, with Dame Helen Mirren returning for her third cameo in the franchise. Mirren’s appearance is, of course, a highlight, especially as she finally gets to drive this time, but it’s the Tokyo guys’ appearance that leads to the franchise’s most audacious stunt yet.
As the scale and joyous absurdity of the movies’ car stunts have continued to increase exponentially a running joke among viewers sprung up about if and when the series would send a car into space but few, if any, thought it would ever actually happen. But, intent on showing that no height is too high, Fast 9 does just that. As part of the film’s finale Sean and Earl drop a Pontiac Fiero containing Roman and Tej off a cargo plane before triggering booster rockets that take it into orbit. Like a lot of viewers, and even some of the cast and crew, I have conflicted feelings about the series actually going to space. I’ve always gotten a kick out of the jokes, but it is somewhat off-putting to see the series, which is at its best when it has some degree of edgy intensity, so completely embrace cartoon absurdity but as the roughly two hours prior to the space scene remind the viewer, it already did that long ago so it’s best to just enjoy what the films have become, as they’re still quite enjoyable. The space sequence itself benefits from the choice of Roman and Tej as the team astronauts, as they bring the right kind of self-aware comedy to the proceedings and a speech by the former as he drives the Fiero towards a satellite is surprisingly sweet. But it’s still maybe not quite as outrageous a spectacle as it should be.
That’s a problem with the film’s action overall. The hand to hand stuff is all good (with a fight the girls get into in Tokyo being a highlight) but the chases and other car stuff isn’t quite as enthusiastically crazy as one would expect, which is especially disappointing coming from Lin, who delivered some of the franchise’s best sequences in Fast Five and Furious Six. Only the Earth-bound portion of the finale, in which Dom and company toss other cars around with unnaturally powerful magnets comes close to the usual kind of joyous insanity but even that falls a bit short.
Ultimately Fast 9 winds up in the middle of the series in terms of quality. It’s not precise enough in its craziness or storytelling to match those glorious middle chapters but like most of the series its heart is unquestionably in the right place and the obvious love the cast and crew have for one another, the characters, and the story make it a warm, very fun experience. And the work it does in restoring some of the franchise’s beloved elements should hopefully allow the upcoming two-part franchise finale to deliver.
- Now that space has been conquered the big question is what can the next films do to top it. The new joke is that Fast should crossover with Universal’s other major action franchise, Jurassic Park, so Dom and company can race dinosaurs but I’d prefer that didn’t happen. Time travel could be interesting though.
- The film ends with another really excellent shout-out to Walker.
- After that, there’s a titillating mid-credits scene that sets up what should be an epic storyline for either Fast 10 or Hobbs and Shaw 2.
F9: The Fast Saga
Despite taking the franchise to the final frontier F9 can't top the series' best films, but it's still a great family experience.