F9 Knows When to Hit the NOS

F9 is a breathtakingly dumb. I don’t say that either pejoratively or as a positive, but rather as a demonstrative, objective fact. The movie itself regularly stops to acknowledge how ridiculous and outlandish it is, an outgrowth of the gaining momentum of one of film’s unlikeliest franchises. But as Fast and Furious films have always escalated their excess and bombast (as we have been documenting for the past two months or so), this entry feels different. It is a breaking point where you are either in or completely out. F9 is glorious, unabashedly dumb, and welcomes you to embrace its delirious, jubilant silliness. And for the most part, that invitation pays out in an enjoyable rush of a film.

The general overarching plot for the film will be familiar to long-time fans of the series: a well-equipped villain is attempting to claim a world-threatening piece of technology for ill-defined reasons, and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team of precision drivers and technical experts must re-unite to stop them. It will be familiar because it is the same plot as the series as a whole since Fast and Furious 6, when the series transitioned from crooks-with-heart capers into vehicular GI Joes. The differences for each entry are on the margins, and how that basic structure interacts with the larger story the Fast Saga has told thus far.

This time around, the hook is fairly strong: the baddie that must be stopped is in fact Jakob Toretto (John Cena, in his series debut), the previously unmentioned biological brother of Dom and Mia (Jordana Brewster, making a welcome return). Thus the mission is complicated when chosen family collides with blood family. There is never any tension on which side of the divide Dom will choose, but it provides the film a method and reason to dig more into Dom’s past.

The method and process of digging through that context is likely the film’s strongest suit, as for the first time the series makes significant use of flashback, giving glimpses of events that occurred before the first film. Specifically, the circumstances of how Dom’s father died, and how Dom’s subsequent actions set him down the path we eventually meet up with him are explored thoroughly. These serve as the emotional spine of the film, and thanks to game performances from Vinnie Bennet and Finn Cole as young Dom and Jakob respectively, and a very emotional performance from Michel Rooker, grounds it in the familial melodrama that has always been the heart of the series.

But surrounding that central exploration is so much explosion, sometimes quite literally. The opening action set piece of the film has the family having to speed through an active minefield, and the film only escalates from there. Most of the biggest moments of the movie are teased in the film’s trailer, but suffice to say that an idea once batted around as a joke by series fans is realized in a spectacularly ecstatic climax.

Justin Lin returns as director after two entries away from the series, and his strength at clearly defined spaces and action once again returns, as does his passion for utilizing the whole buffalo of the franchise. Most notably, characters from the black sheep of the franchise, Tokyo Drift, are brought back, though they are given a full reimagining, a la Tyrese Gibson’s Roman being retooled between his debut in 2 Fast and his return in Fast Five. But even more dramatically, fan-favorite character Han (Sung Kang) returns, both as a function of plot but also as an emotional corrective. This requires some trademark Fast wonky justification, but ultimately having Kang back makes any suspension of belief worthwhile. He is underused in this film, but having him back on the board is a welcome return.

Perhaps the biggest bummer of the film is the return of Charlize Theron, an excellent actress, as Cipher, a bad character who doesn’t improve upon her vaguely defined anarchist philosophy from her debut in Fate of the Furious. Cipher is relegated to a Hannibal Lecter role here, captured by Jakob as an asset to assist in his scheme, but given multiple chances to monologue and project her own insights into the ordeal. But she still doesn’t work, even as they continue to position her as the central villain of this final leg of the franchise.

What does work in F9 is what has always worked: the core family as a cohesive unit is still charming and winning and a crew of protagonists who ride or die through whatever outlandish obstacles are placed before them. F9 is unquestionably dumb, but in a sweet, earnest and self-aware way that never sinks into self parody; the film is confident in its lunacy and pulls the audience along. Lin’s return helps, as he always had the strongest grasp on the balance between being big and outrageous but grounded in something tangible. He knows when to hold on reactions, and when to hold on spectacle, and balances those two sides expertly. For series loyalists who were discouraged by the last couple outings, F9 does a lot of leg work to establish the table setting for the series going forward, while also producing a thrilling roller coaster unto itself. It is Hollywood filmmaking at its most audacious, and it’s never been more welcome.

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