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Non-Review Review: F9 – The Fast Saga

They say “start as you mean to go on.” So it seems appropriate that F9: The Fast Saga opens with a car crash.

The ninth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise arrives at an interesting time in the run of the series. Vin Diesel has announced that it might be time to retire the franchise, following a closing trilogy worthy of the characters. After much internal drama, two of the franchise’s core characters have spun out into their own franchise with Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw. The series is also still coming to terms with the passing of Paul Walker, who was the glue that held the franchise together. After all, what are Roman and Tej doing on the team now that Brian is gone?

Back in the ‘burgh.

Perhaps understanding that this is a tumultuous time for the Fast and Furious series, F9 makes a number of obvious plays for safe and familiar ground. Justin Lin returns as writer and co-director, a veteran of the franchise who helmed the four films between Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious 6. Lin directed Fast Five, which is probably the best film in the franchise, existing at the perfect intersection between the series’ origins as a gritty urban western and the bombastic blockbuster behemoth that it would become.

F9 clearly and repeatedly attempts to recapture some of the magic of Fast Five, but only serves to demonstrate that the franchise can’t go home again.

F9 repeatedly and directly invokes Fast Five. Once again, there is a major addition to the franchise’s ensemble. A former professional wrestler is cast as an initially antagonistic character who is inevitably revealed to be a more complex and nuanced figure. It helps that John Cena has frequently been compared to Dwayne Johnson, and the two even feuded during their wrestling days. It is hard not to see Jakob Toretto as a potential replacement for Luke Hobbs, following the same enemy-turned-ally and outsider-to-eventual-insider arc.

Lin also draws on some other aspects of Fast Five, including a climax that draws (very loosely) from secondary school physics to heighten the franchise’s familiar vehicular action sequences. In Fast Five, the characters drive a gigantic safe through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, wielding it like a giant swinging pendulum. In F9, the characters have some fun with car-mounted magnets. (To F9‘s credit, the film goes out of its way to point out that the villains have excellent dental care, perhaps to justify why those magnets aren’t ripping out fillings.)

“Now You Cena Me.”

More to the point, F9 represents another attempt to realign the Fast and Furious franchise, to balance the series between its two poles and to reconcile a series that began with a crew heisting DVD plays before evolving into a franchise where the heroes regularly race nuclear submarines. Fast Five was lucky, in that it existed at a pivot point in the franchise’s history between what it had been and what it would become. F9 is not so lucky, trying to retroactively reconnect with the franchise’s roots at a distance of twenty years and a budget multiplier of five.

Releasing that the franchise has lost touch with anything resembling reality, and perhaps conceding that the absence of both Walker and Johnson leaves a potential charisma vacuum, F9 attempts to take the series back to its roots with the introduction of Dom Toretto’s heretofore unmentioned brother Jakob Toretto. Of course, Jakob has never been mentioned before. There is nothing in the prior films that alludes to his existence. However, his mere presence provides an anchor back to the franchise’s roots.

Letty Go.

F9 opens with a flashback to the death of Dom’s father. The film’s first half is peppered with flashbacks that depict events suggested in backstory from the earliest films, such as the attack on another driver that landed Dom in prison. These flashbacks serve to depict events that Dom discussed in earlier films, but in a way that integrate Jakob into the story. It also serves to bring the franchise back to its roots, depicting both professional and street racing.

Of course, these flashbacks simply serve to illustrate how far the Fast and Furious has come, and how distant that world and those stakes are. The film wisely understands that both Vin Diesel and John Cena are too old to play their younger selves, and perhaps wisely avoids gratuitous deaging technology, but the casting of actors Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole adds a strange dissonance to all this. F9 suggests that the only way to take the series back to its roots is to effectively construct an entirely different movie within F9. The two sides of the franchise can no longer be reconciled. They exist separate from one another.

Barn storming.

F9 is a bloated blockbuster. Over the previous nine films, the Fast and Furious franchise has accumulated considerable drag. Even jettisoning the characters of Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, consigning them to their own spin-off franchise, F9 feels overburdened and weighed down. What was once a nimble young street racer is now an overloaded family sedan. One of the most frustrating parts of F9 is how much redundancy there is within the film.

The plot was never an essential part of the Fast and Furious films. Once again, the gang find themselves tasked with tracking down an ominously-named and vaguely-defined weapon of mass destruction, “Project Ares.” As is the way with such things, the weapon has been divided into three parts, and the team find themselves stuck in a race against time to prevent those three parts from falling into the wrong hands. F9 only fleetingly bothers to explain the stakes, perhaps understanding that the audience is smart enough to know that this is never what really matters in the Fast and Furious franchise.

Diesel powered.

It has become commonplace to describe the Fast and Furious films as superhero movies, just swapping out the capes for cars. Certainly, the franchise’s action competes on the level of any modern comic book movie franchise. However, what’s interesting about the Fast and Furious films is how they port over certain conventions of comic book stories that even more direct adaptations are careful to avoid. The Fast and Furious movies embrace the conventions of comic book storytelling that make them “soap operas for boys.”

The Fast and Furious franchise leans heavily on the narrative conventions of superhero comics. Characters frequently fake their own deaths. Major events are continuously revised and retconned to fit the demands of the larger stories. The sprawling interconnected cast has only grown with each installment. The stakes and the scale of the action only escalate from one film to another. In Fast and Furious 6, it was revealed that Dom’s wife Letty hadn’t died in Fast & Furious, but instead had suffered amnesia. After that sort of revelation, it’s no big deal that Dom just happens to have a brother that nobody talks about.

Brothers at arms’ length.

However, at a certain point, these conventions reach critical mass. F9 often feels like it is too mired in continuity and soap operatics to tell its own distinct story, instead feeling like a “to do” list of plot beats accrued over twenty years of storytelling. It isn’t enough to introduce the character of Jakob Toretto, which would be enough for most blockbusters. F9 also has to resurrect the character of Han, who died at the end of Tokyo Drift. It also has to get the gang into space in a car, paying off an internet meme.

F9 is saturated with characters and fan service, very little of which actually serves the movie itself. There are at least twelve major redundant characters, a dozen significant talking roles that could be trimmed to make a more streamlined and compelling narrative. Instead, F9 often feels more like a weird extended family vacation than a high-stakes action thriller, as Dom and his friends tour the world and check in on familiar faces from the previous eight films who are largely superfluous to the story being told.

Life hacks.

To pick a few examples, F9 marks the return of Charlize Theron as the villainous hacker Cypher from F8 of the Furious. Cypher is abducted by Jakob at the start of F9, during an action scene involving Kurt Russell as Mister Nobody, which takes place entirely off-screen. Despite appearing in video footage and flashbacks, and despite not being confirmed dead, Mister Nobody is replaced in the primary plot by Shea Whigham, reprising his role as Stasiak from Fast and Furious 6. Cypher is locked in a box and spends most of the film playing the role of Hannibal from The Silence of the Lambs or Loki from the middle act of The Avengers.

To be fair, Cypher serves a very obvious narrative function that is obvious to anybody who has ever seen a movie before, and who understands that the core tenet of any Fast and Furious movie is the primacy of “family.” She exists as a jack-in-the-box for the potential redemption of Jakob, a bigger bad who might be swapped in at the climax should the movie decide that Jakob is redeemable. However, Cypher is also redundant. Jakob’s business partner Otto could easily fulfil that narrative function on his own. However, F9 feels obligated to include Charlize Theron.

Thinking inside the box.

The same is true of several significant characters. With the introduction of Ramsey and her relationship to Tej, it is debatable what function Roman still plays in the ensemble. Mia makes a big deal of joining the gang on their mission because Jakob is her brother, but Mia and Jakob only get to exchange two lines of dialogue. While it’s nice to see Helen Mirren driving a muscle car, there’s no need for Queenie Shaw to pop in for a scene. Cardi B has a completely superfluous cameo in a completely nonsensical plot tangent that has Dom arrested by fake Interpol agents for violating diplomatic immunity, a thread that lasts four minutes.

Similarly, it’s debatable whether the franchise really needed to bring back Han. It’s also debatable whether the franchise needed to bring back three of Han’s co-stars from Tokyo Drift, particularly as a major recurring plot thread that has little room for actual character work. Of course, the justification for all of this is that “the fans want it.” However, an important part of storytelling is understanding that not every course can be desert. It would be fine to indulge in some fan service, but F9 is overwhelming. It is nothing but fan service.

Don’t forget to check your Mirrens.

This causes all manner of problems with the plotting. In order to integrate all of these elements, characters are merged with plot functions in ways that seem contrived and frustrating. After all, presumably part of the appeal in bringing Han back to life is getting to spend time with Han and to enjoy what he brings to the plot as a character. Instead, it is revealed that Han faked his own death in order to protect one of the three keys to “Project Ares”, which makes his death and absence entirely meaningless and unsatisfying.

In order to fit in all these checklist items, F9 is edited as a trailer. There is no character work here. There are just action scenes and trailer lines. Almost every line of dialogue in F9 is either exposition or a vague philosophical statement waiting to be cut into the trailer. There is no substance. There is no warmth. There is no space to breathe. There’s no equivalent moment to Dom sitting down with Brian to share a beer in Fast Five, to talk about his father and the masculine ideal. For a film that runs two-and-a-half hours, F9 feels curiously hollow.

A Dom-ineering Sibling.

It’s worth pausing to meditate on that. F9 is a movie that sends two members of the gang into outer space. That is insane. It is insane to imagine two of the characters introduced on the Miami race scene in 2 Fast 2 Furious should end up orbitting the planet. However, there is so much other stuff for the movie to get through that there’s no real opportunity to appreciate the moment in all of its wonder and awe, its weirdness and its absurdity.

To be fair, the problem is more fundamental than that. The Fast and Furious films are nominally about “family.” At their best, the films tap into that recurring theme of “found family”, an unlikely bunch of outcasts and oddities who found each other. As such, the idea of Dom confronting his renegade brother and coming to terms with the death of his father should be an emotional pivot for the franchise. Unfortunately it just falls flat, because Diesel and Cena spend relatively little time sharing the screen with one another.

Roman around.

It’s interesting to wonder what motivated the choice to keep Diesel and Cena apart for most of the movie. It is entirely possible that it was simply down to logistics, owing to how many other balls the sequel had to keep in the air. It is also possible that the franchise wants to delay the duo’s interactions until the tenth and then final movie in the franchise. However, it’s also hard not to notice that Diesel and Cena share about as much screentime as Diesel and Johnson did on F8 of the Furious. Perhaps the franchise learned its lessons about putting new additions in scenes with Diesel.

That said, there are moments when F9 seems almost existential. Repeatedly throughout F9, Roman seems on the cusp of realising that he is a supporting character in a long-running blockbuster franchise. He confronts Tej with the argument about how absurd their lives have become, how improbable their adventures have been. Roman almost seems to stare beyond the fourth wall, understanding that he is trapped in some sort of weird nightmare in which death has no meaning and life is nothing but a cavalcade of heightened drama. However, this insight inevitable eludes Roman. It’s a silly joke, not a wry insight.

Drive angry.

To give Lin some credit, there are some impressive action scenes in F9. The opening sequence plays as a weird hypermacho riff on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, suggesting a version of Friedkin’s movie swallowed by blockbuster cinema in a slightly different manner than what actually happened. There’s a satisfying chase through Edinburgh that uses the city’s unique geography very smartly, in a way that is at least more interestingly than Hobbs and Shaw.

Still, F9 is curiously empty and bloated. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the exiling of Dwayne Johnson, the most charismatic member of the primary cast. However, it is also clear that the Fast and Furious franchise has yet to make its piece with the passing of Paul Walker. Walker tragically died in a car crash during the production of Furious 7, leaving the production team in the awkward position of having to wrap up Brian’s arc without actor.

Everybody needs a little space sometimes.

In F9, Walker haunts the franchise. Characters are frequently talking about Brian, who is still alive in the world of the franchise. Brian is still married to Mia. The two have kids. However, Brian has retired to domesticity, acting as babysitter for the team on their whirlwind global adventures. Characters in F9 are constantly having to talk about Brian, to explain his absence, and to promise the audience that the character is just off-screen. At the family barbecue, a place of prominence is set out for Brian, who is notoriously late.

There’s an unsettling dissonance here. The audience and production team understand why Brian can never appear on screen. Walker is dead. However, the characters have to keep up a weird illusion that Brian is vibrant and active, just not participating in any of these adventures. The result is somewhat morbid. It occasionally borders on tasteless, as F9 cynically calculates how much it can tease Brian without showing Walker. It’s very uncomfortable to watch, particularly as F9 seems to believe that this is sincere and sweet.

Getting ready to gear stick it to the man.

More than that, drawing attention to Walker’s absence reinforces what is sorely missing from F9. Walker was the most generous and least ego-driven of the franchise’s headliners, the best scene partner for gentler scenes because he rarely seemed to be competing with his co-stars for attention or space. Walker brought a warmth and humanity to the Fast and Furious franchise that is sorely lacking from F9, and the franchise’s repeated references to Walker’s absence only underscore how that warmth and humanity have slipped away as well.

F9 might finally take its characters to space, but it just as quickly brings them crashing back to Earth.

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