It’s hard to believe that the Fast & Furious film franchise could come from such humble beginnings. And “F9,” the ninth installment of the “Fast & Furious” film franchise, proves it still has some mileage when it comes to the action set pieces, but when it comes to raising the stakes or developing character arcs, it finds itself stuck in neutral.
What started as a small action film about an undercover cop infiltrating a group of Los Angeles street racers has since turned into a global phenomenon by shifting its gears to high-speed heists and then once more into spy thrillers. And yet, it never forgets that family is at the center of it all. For even with the deaths and retcons, somehow Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) never turns his back on family. Except for maybe “F9.”
In “F9,” Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) try to leave their dangerous lifestyle behind by living small town. Unfortunately, the two find themselves drawn back into it when Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) pulls up in their drive away and Dom knows something is amiss because they are carpooling. The three tell Dom that Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) sent them a distressing message that his plane, which was transporting Cipher (Charlize Theron), was attacked mid-air by an unknown assailant and that he stole a piece of a powerful high-tech weapon called Aries.
If all three pieces of Aries are put together, then it has the power to assimilate anything that works with code. It will then spread like wildfire until eventually, it reaches up to the satellites above. Dom wants to leave that life behind, while Letty joins the three on this latest mission. Alone, Dom further investigates the footage and makes a startling discovery. The person that brought down the plane was his long-lost brother, Jakob (John Cena).
A bit of back story, Jakob was tasked with making sure that his father’s car was running smoothly during a race. However, the engine exploded, and the car was engulfed in flames killing the driver. Though the two believed that one of their dad’s rivals had something to do with his death, Dom avenges his father by killing the rival. Unfortunately, he learns that it may have been Jakob who murdered the Toretto patriarch. So in an effort to show him mercy, Dom challenges him to a race. If Jakob wins, he can live and not answer for his crimes. But if he loses, he continues down the road and never looks back.
Jakob loses. Not only did it break the Toretto family apart, but it also created a rift between the two which led to this point. It was fate. So, the film spans the globe once more, stopping at exotic locales and defunct military bases. And when the mission gets more complicated, Han (Sung Kang) returns to offer some help preventing the key from falling into the wrong hands.
Though “Fast & Furious” has proven that it can reinvent itself to be one of the longest-running film franchises to date, “F9” finds itself stuck in neutral in terms of story and character arcs. The stakes are familiar, just with some slight family drama twists and another MacGuffin with the potential to cause a global catastrophe. Here, Dom’s own blood brother comes knocking at his door for revenge. And it’s not one tech device it’s another.
So, the franchise is stagnant as it doesn’t do much to build upon what its predecessors set up. Sure, revealing some more of Dom’s mysterious past with the additional family drama is a nice expansion of the “Fast & Furious” mythology. But because it burned through so many genres like car racing, heists, and spy thrillers, the franchise doesn’t have anywhere else to go. As such, “Fast & Furious” finds itself driving in circles and unable to break the vicious cycle that it found itself in.
It’s not so much that the franchise is running out of gas as it’s creatively stagnated. The characters don’t have much to do but react to the situations at hand with the same sense of urgency. Again, it feels like they are just stuck in perpetual déjà vu as it just goes through the same motions as any one of the other globetrotting “Fast & Furious” films. The sense of urgency is high, but it feels the same. The stakes are high, but it feels the same. And the danger is high, but it feels the same. Because of that, “F9” doesn’t reach the same level of excitement as “Tokyo Drift,” “Fast 5,” or “Furious 6.”
Even the character drama is stuck in place with nowhere to go. Sure, the brotherly angst between Dom and Jakob is a nice twist, but we’ve seen how former family members turn on each other, only to do an about-face and rejoin the family once more. Because, as the franchise has stressed, you never turn your back on family. And because the “Fast & Furious” is a firm believer in that mantra, you probably can guess how far they will take that even with someone like Jakob.
Soap opera theatrics, globetrotting, and high-octane action are all a part of the “Fast & Furious” film franchise. Yet, because it doesn’t do anything new, and as a result the film feels boring and extraordinarily long. And it doesn’t help that “F9” has a convoluted story making it hard to keep up with what is going on. Sure the characters are going to split up for reasons because the story calls for it. But because it’s all been done before, we know how it ends up. It’s just a matter of how long it takes to get through that part of the story.
Still, despite some of those story flaws, the “F9” has plenty of positives going for it. The film marks the return for Justin Lin – who directed “Tokyo Drift,” “Fast & Furious,” “Fast 5,” and “Furious 6” – who stepped aside from the previous two installments to focus on other projects. So the film brings back that balance of wild chases and character drama while also throwing in some meta-humor into the mix to keep things fresh.
The chases are bolder and wilder, and in “F9” it embraces all of its absurdity by upping the ante and straight-up defying the laws of physics. Sure it has been done before, but that was with a little bit more elegance and subtlety of a tank. During one sequence, Dom and his family are chasing after Jakob through a jungle infested with landmines, all the while trying to dodge a hail of enemy gunfire. A shift of gears here, and car-ramming another there, and many landmine explosions in between, does have its thrills, especially when they come across a bridge that surely cannot sustain the weight of a car.
And that is just action set-piece number one. From there, all those action sequences turn the dial to 11 by weaponizing super magnets to repel cars towards their enemies. At some point, it’s used as a means of escape when Jackob magnetizes his car to the bottom of a cargo plane. What’s more, the film embraces the absurdity and outrageousness of the survival rate of gunshots and car wrecks for the family. And it takes it up another notch when Rom and Tej visit Sean (Lucas Black), Twinkie (Bow Wow), and Jason (Earl Hu), to talk about attaching a rocket booster to a Pontiac Fierro.
Even if “F9” takes a look back at the Toretto family history to give the film franchise a much-needed boost in engagement, the film finds itself stuck in neutral because of convoluted storytelling. After 20 years and ten films, it only makes sense that we get to see Dom’s roots and the source of his drive to drive fast cars and his philosophy on family. And while the “Fast & Furious” franchise has done well to stay alive by reinventing itself, the one thing that needs an upgrade is the soap opera and family drama.