‘F9: The Fast Saga’ Review: The Time is Now

After two years of delays, the ninth core installment of the Fast & Furious franchise has finally hit American movie theaters. F9: The Fast Saga welcomes back Justin Lin, the director who shepherded the series through its growing pains and delivered some of its best installments along the way. His Fast Five is commonly considered the high water mark for the franchise so far, and while F9 doesn’t top it, it might come the closest of any of the films that have followed. F9 is absolutely stuffed to the gills, with more characters and tones than should really be manageable, but somehow Lin fits all of the story’s demands into something delightful and digestible. It’s a juggling act, and while he drops the occasional ball, it’s extremely fun to watch. 

I Heard Somewhere That This Series Was About Family

F9: The Fast Saga is built off the kind of soap opera twist that has become standard for the series: the reemergence of Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) long-lost younger brother Jakob (John Cena, in his first of two major blockbusters this summer). While Dom has been gradually lured into the world of globe-trotting, world-saving espionage, Jakob has already been there, done that, and left it behind in favor of freelance world conquest. Backed by a spoiled European prince (Danish actor Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and assisted by captured cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron reprising her role from The Fate of the Furious), Jakob is on a quest to assemble all three components to a dangerous superweapon. Naturally, only Dom and his tight-knit crew of drag racers-turned-secret agents can stop him.

Watching Vin Diesel and John Cena chase, fight, and glare at each other is plenty of fun in an “I can’t believe this is a real movie” sort of way, but neither actor truly sells their familiar relationship. Luckily, F9 has a way around this, hanging much of its emotional weight on a series of flashbacks in which Dom and Jakob are portrayed by Vinnie Bennett (The Gulf) and Finn Cole (Peaky Blinders), respectively. Bennett and Cole are each totally convincing as younger, more vulnerable incarnations of their characters as well as reading much more easily as brothers than Diesel and Cena, and they do the dramatic heavy lifting so that the action leads don’t really have to. Once you can see the sad, scared young men the Toretto brothers used to be, it becomes much easier to see them in the eyes of their older selves, which is absolutely essential to the movie’s success.

It’s always been a bit of an exaggeration to say that the Fast and Furious movies are “about family.” They’re certainly about a family — the love the characters have for each other is a big part of the movies’ charm and it sometimes drives the plot — but they’re rarely trying to say anything about family, thematically. Through flashbacks to Dom, Jakob, and their father Jack (JD Pardo, Mayans M.C.), F9 examines a new, more complex family dynamic, and the fact that being family sometimes means owning the way you’ve damaged each other. Jakob reopens Dom’s original wound — the death of his father in a racing accident — but it’s a wound for both of them, and their reunion forces them to reexamine how they handled it.

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The Torettos’ Ballooning Barbeque Budget

The Toretto family drama means the return of Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), absent from the last installment as she and Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker) have retired from adventuring to raise their two children. Jakob’s reappearance is the perfect device to get Mia back into the action while easily explaining Brian’s absence — this is much more personal for her than for him, and one of them has got to watch the kids. As the youngest Toretto, Mia has a different relationship with the middle child Jakob, and while it’s not the focus of the story, this is the most essential Mia has felt to an F&F movie since Fast Five. She’s also a full participant in the action, joining Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) for one of the movie’s coolest fight scenes.

But Mia isn’t the only character to rejoin the Toretto crew in F9 after some time away. This chapter also marks the return of Han “Seoul-Oh” Lue (Sung Kang), whose deadly car wreck at the end of Tokyo Drift was retconned into a murder in the coda to Fast & Furious 6 and is now revised a second time to allow for his return. Han’s resurrection would have made for a fantastic second-act surprise, but since it was spoiled by the movie’s marketing, it ends up a tad underwhelming. It’s great to see Han embraced by his old friends, but with so many characters and narrative threads to manage, Han’s subplot in F9 feels like an afterthought. His return is welcome, but it could also easily be excised from the film. (Justin Lin recently assured /Film’s Haoi-Tran Boai that this is just the beginning, and that #JusticeForHan is still forthcoming.)

Han brings with him a new minor character, his surrogate daughter Elle (Anna Sawai of the pop group FAKY). Elle receives a fantastic introduction that establishes her as an expert fighter, and while she gets a few violent glamor shots in the film’s climax, she remains more device than character. F9 also reintegrates three more characters from Tokyo Drift into the crew: Sean (Lucas Black, NCIS: New Orleans), Twinkie (the former “Bow Wow” Shad Moss), and Earl (Jason Tobin, Warrior), which was a treat for a Drift defender like myself. Sure, the storytellers may be padding the party in order to have more fodder for spin-offs once the core series comes to a close, but for the moment it feels right that everyone should get a seat at the table at the Toretto family barbecue.

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The De-Gimlification of Roman Pearce

Somewhere in between Fast Five and The Fate of the Furious, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) became the Gimli of the Toretto crew. Like the dwarf warrior of The Lord of the Rings films, Roman is introduced as a hero and a peer to the other members of his team, but at some point the storytellers decided he was more valuable as the class clown, routinely embarrassed and allowed only brief glimmers of competence. (This comparison comes courtesy of my wife, a Tolkien enthusiast for whom this is a serious failing of the LOTR film adaptations.) Gimli’s de-evolution begins when comic relief characters Merry and Pippen are separated from the rest of the party, and perhaps Roman ends up suffering from the diminished roles of similar characters Leo and Santos after the Rio heist. Whatever the cause, Roman is basically useless in Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious.

F9’s comedy subplot sees Roman grappling with what, in this context, is a totally reasonable question: “How the hell am I still alive?” Roman achieves a self-awareness about the ever-escalating danger of their missions that, thankfully, stops short of breaking the fourth wall. This line of thought doesn’t really go anywhere substantial, but it forecasts a shift in the dynamic between Roman and Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) in this film. For the past few installments, Roman has played foil to Tej, who has accumulated a wide variety of amazing and useful skills in contrast to Roman’s eroding utility. This time, Tej is Roman’s foil — they share in most of their accomplishments throughout the story, but Roman’s point of view gets priority and Tej’s role is to respond. It’s a nice change of pace that humanizes Roman, and after three films as an untouchable god of tech and martial arts, Tej can survive this temporary demotion.

With Roman’s eye turned inward and Tej playing counselor, both men seem to abandon their romantic pursuit of Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). Consequently, Ramsey gets other things to do this time around aside from parrying their advances and spouting technobabble. It’s taken until her third film, but she’s finally starting to feel like a full member of the ensemble. Once again, the villain’s scheme is an advanced cyberweapon, which makes her hacking skills key to defeating him, but that’s not Ramsey’s only value to the team. She gets to steer an action-comedy set piece (literally and figuratively), and spends less of the film in general riding shotgun while the rest of the cast drives. 

F9 manages its mammoth cast by appropriately scaling the amount of screen time given to each character. By splitting up the party, each of the secondary characters has fewer scenes but more to do in them, which makes them feel like greater contributors to the plot. The “special guest star” characters, like Helen Mirren’s Queenie Shaw and Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, get one or two highlight moments and then vanish. Charlize Theron gets about one scene per act, which is enough to remind us that she’s a threat without diminishing the new antagonist in whom we’re supposed to get invested. Only Han ends up feeling underserved, because his time on screen does not live up to the narrative weight lent to his return from the dead.

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The Best of Both Worlds

The F9 return most worth celebrating is that of director Justin Lin, who helmed four consecutive installments of the franchise before leaving it behind to direct Star Trek Beyond and produce television series like the underrated Warrior. Neither of the core Fast movies made since Lin’s departure — James Wan’s Furious 7 and F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious — quite lived up to Lin’s best work on the series, and with Lin now back in the saddle, it’s now easier to see just how much he was missed. Lin presided over the Fast franchise’s transition from light, stylized thrillers to Mission: Impossible-level action blockbusters, and F9 demonstrates his prowess in both arenas.

The Lin-less Fast films attempted to up the ante for the action of the series by inserting the Toretto crew and their trademark wheels into increasingly bizarre scenarios. Furious 7 parachute-dropped sports cars out of an airplane, Fate had the gang in armored cars skidding across ice and battling a nuclear submarine. These sequences are undeniably fun, but they’re ridiculous on a level that the previous films had never approached. In Lin’s F9, the vehicular action is no more plausible (they send a Pontiac into space!!!), but is less nonsensical in context. There are firefights, sure, but the key action of F9 is pursuit, not combat. This film’s action climax, in which the gang pushes and pulls cars and other detritus around using powerful electromagnets, feels like an escalation of the gleeful mayhem of Fast Five’s vault chase, not an attempt to out-do the submarine climax of Fate.

On the other hand, F9’s flashback sequences also harken back to the roots of the series, evoking but not imitating the tone of the original Fast and the Furious. The 1989 sections of the film necessarily have lower narrative stakes and more grounded action, and root their drama in the same earth as the first film: betrayal. The outcome of this miniature prequel-within-a-sequel is determined in the same manner conflicts are resolved in the early Fast movies — with a street race. For my money, the climax of the flashback story contains the second-most effective quarter-mile in the entire franchise, behind only the final race of the first film. It’s remarkable how well Lin fits these two time frames together, given that they represent just how much the franchise has changed over the past twenty years.

F9’s subtitle, The Fast Saga, is probably just a loud announcement of a franchise rebrand, but it’s also fitting to this film in particular. F9 is the chapter in the story that acknowledges the extent to which the scope of the Fast & Furious movies has scaled without betraying any embarrassment towards either extreme. F9 doesn’t please by aiming for the middle of the road, it does so by using the entire road, deftly changing lanes when necessary and hitting the NOS at just the right moments. 

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