‘F9’ Is More Pace Car Than Photofinisher (Movie Review)

Has summer movie season finally begun in the U.S.? Universal’s ninth entry in their blockbuster series, the aptly named F9: The Fast Saga, hits theaters in the states this weekend (although it’s been playing across the globe for a month now). The box office has been surprisingly good for the theater-only release of A Quiet Place: Part II but sadly not good for In the Heights (which rules, btw). As Dom and his family rev up for the latest installment, there were never any plans to go the streaming route. Originally slated for April of 2020, was the wait to witness high octane thrills at your local IMAX worth it? Has #Justice4Han been served? Does John Cena fill the void left by Dwayne Johnson? Did Cars in Space really happen? Finally, where does this rank before we get to the eventual tenth entry?

As Dom and Letty enjoy life with cute-as-a-button Lil’ Brian, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, the only member of the crew under 40) make an unannounced visit. Trouble is afoot. A message has been left by a possibly dead Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). Threats of devastation are imminent. And at the center of it is a dude named Jakob, who is… Dom’s estranged brother. Wait, what?

My thoughts on retconning: Unlike a few of my fellow nerds, I don’t have a complete aversion to it. For those not as nerdy as yours truly, retconning means introducing a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events. For the most part, what we dub retcon is a pejorative. For instance, no one claims the reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father  “from a certain point of view” is a retcon; it’s merely a twist. But finding out Leia was Luke’s sister was, at the time, more like, “eh.” I mean, Luke clearly crushed on her, right? They kissed! So that was baffling at first, but okay, we got used to it. And the less said about the Emperor having a granddaughter, the better. F9 delivers on the spectrum of retconning from satisfying to not so much. Yet not in the way you’d think.

First, the good stuff. When I saw the trailer back in 2020, revealing that former wrestler John Cena would be playing, Nordic-looking sibling Jakob to Dom (Vin Diesel) and Mia (Jordana Brewster), I laughed out loud. Fast & Furious’ focus on “family” is as square as Cena’s jaw. As a fan, I’m fine with this cheesy but entirely workable theme. After eight films, the stories have smartly incorporated that notion into villains like the Shaw clan consisting of Jason Statham, Luke Evans, Vanessa Kirby, and Helen Mirren (speaking of, Mirren has a fun one-scener in this). So the idea that we somehow never knew that Vin had a brother with similar pedal-to-the-metal skills after nearly two decades is a stretch, but why not. I don’t recall seeing a family photo of the Torretos when Mia was getting to know Brian (the late Paul Walker) in the first film, but it’s okay because “the movies.”

The main plot features Dom’s younger bro working as a merc for an annoying trust fund baddie named Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) who also kidnapped Cipher (Charlize Theron) to acquire some MacGuffin that will cause chaos to governments and corporations blah blah blah. The only important aspect is that Jakob is working for them and Cipher to a lesser degree (I love Theron, but she could have shot all her scenes over a single weekend).

Dom and his crew will need to take Jakob down. Once we get to the big confrontation between Dom and Jakob, it totally works. Cena might not be charming in the way Dwayne Johnson is as Hobbs, but I get why Vin wanted to cast another pro-wrestler. First off, it’s visually it’s impressive to see another actor that’s as big as Dom. The other is simply how epic the stare-downs are. The theatrical vibe that makes pro-wrestlers so effective in a ring works effortlessly in the Fast films.

Still, it takes like an hour to get to that moment.

The problem with F9 isn’t that the script by Daniel Casey and Justin Lin (who also returns to direct, following his post-Fast & Furious 6 departure) dares to essentially make up a rival brother for Dom. It’s that they don’t trust that audiences will hop on board with this admittedly silly revelation. As a result, the film opens with a flashback of young Dom and Jakob, plus their pop-pop at a stock car race that goes horribly wrong.

On the plus side, it’s nice to see Michael Rooker show up in the pit crew as a fun nod to his Days of Thunder days with Cruise (like Thunder) back in 1990. The actors playing young Dom (Alex McGee) and Jakob (Finn Cole) are serviceable, yet it’s all pretty dull despite a car crash, a brawl, and the Toretto’s living their life a quarter-mile at a time. Worse, the flashbacks keep popping up throughout F9‘s bloated 145-min run time.

This is the rare example of where I would have preferred tell not show. There are plenty of scenes where Diesel and Cena just tell each other how they feel, and they are 100% more convincing than hazy colored back-in-the-day sequences with actors with which we have zero attachment. All of that just slows the pacing to a crawl.

On the other side of that retcon spectrum is the glorious return of Han (Sung Kang), which is explained via a single short but sweet flashback montage showing how he survived the car crash and explosion in Tokyo caused by Statham’s Shaw. A big difference in my engagement is I was primed for Han’s return. It’s like when I heard rumors Stallone wanted to bring Carl Weathers back in Creed. At some point, I honestly don’t care how silly the explanation.

Likewise, Han, my favorite potato chip-eating member of the Fast family, is back. Is the reason plausible? Sure, in a world where powerful magnets allow our drivers to puppet unsuspecting vehicles up and down the road, this makes complete sense. This film also sees series MVP Roman and Tej travel to outer space in a decades-old Fiero. I’ll accept all of it because I like the cast, and it’s executed with breakneck pacing.

Overall, this is a pretty fun entry in the series. I’d rank this one in the eighth position out of the ten released, between Fast & Furious and Hobbs. That might seem low, but I’ve only really disliked 2 Fast 2 Furious of the ten films, which I’m told I need to revisit. As the cast of this blockbuster series gets bigger, so does that budget, and the money, as they say, is on the screen. From the globe-trotting vistas to the ever-increasing set pieces that toss in more mayhem, it’s hard not to get swept up. There are reportedly two more left in this “final trilogy.” I’ll be there, Vin.


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