In 2001, The Fast and the Furious was about street racing and selling stolen DVD players. It was Point Break with cars. It was simple, and dumb, and kind of fun in the way early 2000s films are, caught between the overblown action of the post-Matrix world and the nascent domination of superhero movies. In 2021, F9 is about…um…something, something magnets? And space? Definitely family. I know these movies are about family because they say the word “family” relentlessly even though characters come and go and with breezy forgettability. “Family” in the “Fast Saga” is defined as any group of people who sit at a table and say grace. Do they all have to know each other? No! Can the women be curiously disposable? Yes! If we make every new character related to someone from a previous movie, does that make it more like family? Sure! If we just say “family” enough, can we claim our dumb vroom vroom movie is about something? Absolutely!
F9 is both the best and worst of what the Fast Saga has become. Best in that it is so, so stupid, just really delightfully dumb, and no one is trying to make excuses for it. Roman (Tyrese Gibson) even spends much of the movie pondering if they’re not even mortals anymore, but are actually some kind of superhumans. Hobbs & Shaw, the spin-off starring Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson, actually does introduce superhumans to the universe, so it is entirely possible, but it feels more like Roman is three seconds away from announcing they are actually gods and the next movie will be set on Mount Olympus. And it feels like, yeah, that might as well happen. That’s the best way to sum up F9—it might as well happen. Introduce a third Toretto sibling no one has ever mentioned or even hinted at once before? Okay. Destroy half of Edinburgh with magnet cars? Sounds good. Shoot a rocket-car into space? Yeah, why not?
But it’s also the worst in that there is no denying these movies have lost a step without Paul Walker. I mentioned it in my Fate of the Furious review, but Vin Diesel is incapable of carrying these movies alone. He needs someone charismatic to balance him out. With Paul Walker gone, and Dwayne Johnson ejected from this movie, it’s up to John Cena as Jakob Toretto, Dom’s long-lost little brother, to leaven the Diesel loaf, and he is not up to the task. Cena can be charming on screen (see also: Blockers), but he’s doing a Vin Diesel impression, so he’s registering on a flat wavelength too close to Diesel to liven things up. Ditto for Michelle Rodriguez, who finally gets some cool action beats of her own, but still has little in the way of characterization and her performance is also too self-serious to energize the movie. Charlize Theron, reprising her role as super-hacker Cipher, is little help because, while she is wildly charismatic, she spends most of the movie in a glass box. What is it with these movies sticking women in glass boxes?
F9 comes alive for the approximately three minutes Helen Mirren is on screen—finally! She drives!—and it gets a considerable jolt when Sung Kang returns as Han. One scene perfectly illustrates how badly these movies need that cool factor as Kang slopes into frame alongside Diesel, munching on a snack as if he has no cares in the world. For a moment, the energy picks up, Diesel’s dour presence is balanced by someone with a lighter touch, and everything clicks into place. There isn’t enough of Kang to keep it up, though, and it seems without Walker around and no one like Johnson to threaten his top dog status, Diesel thinks these movies are about him and now everything has to connect back to the Torettos in a deeply uninteresting way. I don’t even like it when everything connects in a franchise I enjoy, like Star Wars, and I REALLY don’t like it when a franchise like the Fast Saga becomes this small. The explanation for Han’s “death” is also small, connecting directly to the plot of F9. What if other things were happening, that opened up new corners for these movies to explore? No? Never mind!
Fans of the Fast/Furious movies will undoubtedly be happy with F9. Justin Lin returns to the director’s seat for the first time since Fast & Furious 6, and the action is a long—and I do mean long, this movie is two and a half hours—string of increasingly improbable, physics-defying nonsense, which is what the people pay to see (I guess). At one point, Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) says, “If we just obey the laws of physics, everything will be fine,” as if this universe contains anything even resembling the laws of physics. I suppose this also passes for a joke, because outside of the hairbrained stunts and borderline offensive teasing between characters, there is little humor in this movie. But again, it doesn’t matter how bad, how dry, how dour these movies get. As long as cars are being flung off cliffs and into space, the people are happy. Let Vin Diesel make the vroom vroom movie about his boring family’s problems? Might as well.