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Review: F9 Revs Along in a Formulaic Way But Still Provides Fun Thrills

May 25, 2021 09:00 | By
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Nathaniel Emmanuel and Vin Diesel in F9

Usually, by the time a franchise hits its ninth installment, as “The Fast Saga” has — unlike many, many others, mind you — there’s only so much that can be done with a formula that’s been working for so long. 20 years, in this case. It’s why James Bonds usually switch out every four to six installments and why even the most lucrative blockbusters eventually do call it a day.

For F9, it probably came down to Director Justin Lin feeling he had more to do with the characters that he developed over the course of four movies between 2006 and 2013. By now, Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto and his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are successfully off the grid, having settled as they watch over their friend Brian’s young son. They’re soon visited by some of their old crew, their other “family,” saying that the group’s FBI connection (Kurt Russell) has gone missing. When they travel to an exotic location where his plane went down, they instead discover that Dom’s long-absent younger brother Jakob (John Cena) is now working with the criminal spy organization, Cypher, helping them gain an item known as Project Aries that can take over the world’s computer systems.

Before we even get there, we watch a flashback to 1989, when a much younger Dom watches his father die in a flaming wreck on the race track. This flashback is going to be one we revisit many times over the course of F9, and honestly, it’s something that actually drags down what’s otherwise a fairly brisk story. To make this decision worse, the young actors playing Dom and Jakob just don’t have the charisma of their older counterparts.

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Diesel with John Cena in F9

Eventually, Dom and his crew split up to go on their own separate missions, and that’s where things continue to deteriorate, since many of these side trips serve very little purpose. Helen Mirren’s Queenie Shaw shows up for no particular reason other than the fact that Dom is in London looking for his brother there. Same with Cardi B — no purpose whatsoever. It takes a very long time before it’s apparent why Charlize Theron’s character was even brought back.

Although some will be happy to see Sun Kang return as the popular character Han, his role is shoehorned into a story that already has too many layers. Tyrese Gibson’s Roman and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’ Tej are once again there for the comic relief, cracking jokes and pranking each other, but that only works to a point before it starts taking away from the danger and stakes. In some ways, Jakob’s evil partner Otto, played by Thue Ersted Rasmussen, delivers more consistent laughs.

Otherwise, the women do get some of the better moments in the movie. Rodriguez is still quite a badass after 20 years, and even Dom’s sister, played by Jordana Brewster, gets more into the action than we’ve ever seen before. Nathalie Emmanuel’s tech-geek Ramsey also gets to do more than in previous movies. Fans of the franchise should also enjoy seeing a few deep-cut cameos from earlier in the series, which makes one think that Lin must have created a lot of goodwill with his previous movies.

On the other hand, F9 just has too many ideas going on, plain and simple, and some of these characters, while fun, just bogs things down in the name of fan service. In general, the writing isn’t as sharp as the last few chapters, maybe because writer Chris Morgan, who began on the “Fast Saga” with Lin’s first movie, Tokyo Drift, is no longer involved.  It’s noticeable, and yet, F9 doubles down on the sci-tech spy stuff that was one of the issues with Morgan’s recent Hobbs and Shaw spin-off. The Toretto Brothers feud also only goes so far, because it just doesn’t have the meat of previous rivalries from the franchise. 

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Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson in F9

In the opening of 2009’s Fast and Furious, Lin and his stunt team flipped a blazing oil tanker down a mountain pass to a big explosion. Being five movies ago, F9 is going to have to open itself up to even bigger set pieces, and that’s definitely the case with the boundaries being pushed on where one can take a speedy car.

Whether or not Lin’s crew is a “family” or just a well-oiled machine who has made enough of these movies to know how to make them work is something only those involved know, but it all begins with Production Designer Jan Roelfs and the Location Managers Jamie Jones and Jo Beckett finding these amazing places to stage the action and keep things fresh, including an obviously pre-COVID Edinburgh.

DoP Stephen Windon ACS ACS and his amazing camera team are able to capture every second of what Lin throws at them, while the work by Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang and his amazing team is as seamless as past installments, but it’s also the aspect of these movies that has improved the most drastically over successive installments. That work does a good job making you believe that some of the craziest stunts by Spiro Razatos and J.J. Perry’s equally jaw-dropping stunt teams are physically possible. 

It might be little surprise that it took three editors — Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto ACE and Greg D’auria — to pull together all these disparate characters and stories into something remotely cohesive. Brian Miller’s score — his seventh for the franchise! — effortlessly mixes style but at times is in danger of being mixed too low compared to all the sound work being done to create these amazing car chases.

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Michelle Rodriguez in F9

Sure, there are parts of F9’s last act that are excessively silly or even quite dumb — there’s always been a certain suspension of disbelief needed for these movies —  but it’s counterbalanced by another amazing chase sequence upping the use of the giant powerful magnets that are a running theme throughout the movie.

Apparently, there’s still one final chapter of this franchise to be made before it’s finally put to bed. I’m not 100% sure that even the most diehard fans will want much more of the “Fast Saga” with everything thrown at them in this one. Hopefully, Lin and his team can find new ways to excite, because F9 may finally push those fans further than they’re willing to go with a formula that’s constantly in danger of running thin.

F9 is now playing overseas, but it will open in North America on June 25. 

All photos courtesy Universal Pictures.