F9 review: Fast and Furious movies have a Dom problem
With eight sequels, a spin-off movie, several video games, an adult coloring book, a Funko board game, and a Netflix animated series (featuring a Mr. Clean Vin Diesel cartoon) in the rearview mirror, Fast & Furious should to be a fully formed cinematic universe in a spectacle groove. But F9 finds longtime series director Justin Lin baking donuts in the franchise’s parking lot.
The movie isn’t disastrous – Lin’s physics-defying sets are more polished and dizzying than anything in 2017’s CG cacophony The fate of the furious – but it’s two and a half hours of sluggish action drama. And it’s about Dom, who does a terrible job of keeping the family together.
[Ed. note: This review contains spoilers for F9.]
Shockingly nine movies in: Diesel, who climbed solo in ridiculous action vehicles like xXx, Riddick and The last witch hunter (yes, really!), struggles to bring his charisma to the overall camaraderie, and his impending presence slows down F9‘s chills. In addition to the franchise’s $ 6 billion box office foundation, Lin and screenwriter Dan Casey (Close) are building the biggest installment yet, sending each family member on their own mission to prevent “Project Ares”, the ultimate doomsday weapon. Unfortunately, they use the same space to build a monument to Dom, despite a multi-faceted story mostly keeping Diesel off the screen.
When he is there F9 is the Dom Show, exploring his family history and reforging the former DVD thief into a god-touched Herculean hero. Not once does he feel like someone his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) or his pals Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) can count on – or even look straight in the face. (Close your eyes, he is too human for the mere mortal spirit to understand!) After 20 years of Fast movies, Dom is a fully functional blockbuster superhero; he can swing a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat across a Central American chasm like he’s screwing Indianapolis 500 Jones. But give him the floor for a family reunion, and he’s DOA.
Lin and Casey’s overinvestment in Diesel’s alter ego begins with the introduction of Dom’s little brother, Jakob Toretto (John Cena), cousin Oliver of the Fast franchise. Legend has it that when Dom and Jakob were just twenties working on the Daytime Supply Team and Street Warring at night, they saw their father perish in a car crash and Jakob was behind the sabotage that killed him. The brothers never saw each other again after Dom kicked Jakob out of town – until the Fast franchise needed to Make. Things. Staff. Years later, with Dom and Letty living off the grid with Dom’s son, Jakob emerges as the muscle of a Baron Zemo who hopes to hijack Project Ares and hold the global ransom. Although he has sworn to stay out of the game, Dom once again argues with his family to stop his fam-nemy. It’s an original setup, but through Lin’s bombastic soap opera lens, it feels like ocean 11 with a stroke of NOS.
A solid base allows the film to fast do what he has to do, at some level. The cat-and-mouse game of stealing (and constantly re-stealing) shiny, high-tech computer dongles takes Dom’s team to a dense jungle, neon-lit alleys of Tokyo and the populated streets of London. . Each location fills Lin’s pockets with imaginative motto, which he cashes with absolute delight. Where previous installments have built the glory of Italian work, The French connection, and Mad Max: Fury Road, F9 finds its inspiration in the Harlem Globetrotters. Cars catch falling passers-by, flip enemy off-roaders, and stage intricately choreographed attacks using amplified magnets. This time around, we learn that Team Ramsey’s hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) doesn’t even know how to drive, but that’s okay, as the vehicles are basically Transformers, and Lin is giving his stars some automobile all the shots they deserve. As Godzilla vs. Kong or The Lion King, F9 is almost post-human entertainment. Almost.
With Jakob in the mix, Lin and Casey decide that now is the time to turn the franchise upside down and explore Dom’s origins. As our own Joshua Rivera pointed out in his early thoughts on F9, the Fast films came off somewhat after the death of co-star Paul Walker. While furious 7 was fashioned as a tribute, a slew of cameos from former Fast cast members padded the movie and The fate of the furious, and proved that there really is no replacement for the actual stars that show up – Diesel needed Walker’s energy.
Cutting out the character of Dom through flashbacks reveals a vast void both in the series’ Marvel-lite mythology and in Diesel’s human abilities. As young Dom and Jakob, actors Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole emulate lead roles with confidence, but only have levels of backdoor pilot drama to chew on. Lin is desperate to do this job, changing the cinematography to imbue the ’80s setting with the grain of Ford vs. Ferrari, but the conflict lands like a brick. Obviously after their father died there was a lot of screaming and a lot of racing. Go figure!
Just to get the audience to really understand, the script traverses this territory twice: once as a series of appropriate flashbacks, and again when Dom faces a near-death experience. After CG Vin Diesel switches to Full Hulk on a group of SWAT thugs, Dom “drowns” in an underground bunker, floats towards the white light of death, recalls the fateful day his father died on the trail, then recover immediately so the family can get back to the smashing armored vehicles. It’s unclear if Dom even had to dry off after coming out of his alleged watery grave. Another superpower?
F9 thwarts any character development by devoting considerable time to meta-commentary on one’s own ridiculousness. On this tour of the franchise, Roman confronts the existential nature of the family’s inability to be hurt. How do they never get shot? How do they survive every car accident? have they been chosen? If it was the inconsistent mumbles of a man in constant action, it might be the perfect joke to deflate the seriousness to crown any given piece of action. But there are entire dialogue-driven scenes that unbox the possible supernatural forces at work in the Fast franchise. If asides are in place for a possible crossover of the series with Diesel’s Last Witch Hunter universe (come on, that’s it!), Then the movie doesn’t take the magical element seriously enough. If that’s just comedic relief, it’s padding that falls flat – but not as flat as the five-minute gag that the villainous Cipher of Star Wars character Charlize Theron would be on, the moment. F9 cringe.
Self-awareness ultimately diminishes Han’s (Sung Kang) return to the series. The long-awaited cancellation of the fan-favorite’s cheap post-credits death is as badly pronounced as, well, his cheap post-credits death. Nothing matters, Roman explains throughout the film, so Han doesn’t come back into the spotlight either. Han explains to a crowd of stone-faced “friends” how he faked his own death to save himself and a girl, Elle (Anna Sawai), who is the key to unlocking Project Ares. Any emotional pinch is caught in the gibberish plot, which turns out to be recurring interference.
Spreading the team across different missions around the world, there’s not enough time to give anyone a meaningful arc – plus, you know, let them drive faster than ever before – and every moment the character feels like to half a measure. Letty and Mia have a lovely time in an izakaya before meeting Han, but their views on life and love seem ripped from an eighth grade journal. Lin and Casey know the audience wants care about the family, but they cannot forge any kind of relationship between the actors. In one scene, Dom jumps into a heavy truck with Ramsey and Tej, and makes them look like they’ve never met. Wait, don’t you? Even in scenes where the family is gathered in one room, everyone feels isolated, with King Dom holding court in his own close-up. There is no history in the rhythms of this team. (And certainly nothing sparks with the addition of Cena, who is good at barking orders and sneering, but can’t build 30 years of character work behind the wheel.)
I sat upright in my seat once during F9: when Tej, just before crossing space to destroy the Project Ares satellite, imagined what his friends in his old neighborhood would think of him if they knew he was in outer space. There was the glimmer of reality I needed to think a guy’s life was on the line. No lengthy backstory needed.
The bloat that makes this chapter unsuccessful has nothing to do with cartoon action – Lin got it, and it’s often spectacular. That’s it, with Diesel’s Dom in the driver’s seat, F9 does not choose a path. The highs of the series, as Fast Five and furious 7, had tight scripts that connected actor-focused action sequences and managed to distract from the fact that the Fast family was nothing more than simple lines and muscle.
The new film dares to think of 2D caricatures as three-dimensional people and, in doing so, exposes the masquerade. The Diesel version of Dom is a pretended family man without warmth or words of wisdom. He’s a super spy with no tactical advantage or anything to sacrifice. Shakespearean tragedy does not suit him. Get trapped by his long lost brother to drive a sports car in a submachine gun drone as his wife skids on a motorcycle. In a way, Diesel as the Dom is a lot like the cars in the movie: durable, shiny, and roaring at 150 mph. We don’t really need or want to see it in a park, or learn how it came out of the showroom. Roll or die – how many times does Letty have to say this?
F9 is now playing in theaters.