‘F9’ Review: Cars! In! Spaaaaaace!
For years, John Cena was both the most beloved and the most hated wrestler in the WWE. Kids adored his colorful clothes, his quick wit on the microphone, and his never-give-up attitude. John Cena the wrestler was basically a real-life superhero. Older fans hated him for precisely that same reason; Cena was like a walking cartoon character with gimmick catchphrases and the same handful of moves in match after match. Those fans begged for years for Cena to “turn heel” — to ditch his goody-goody persona and embrace his dark side. No matter how much they booed, though, Cena stuck to his guns and kept on the side of the angels.
Watching F9, that decision finally makes sense. As the WWE’s ultimate good guy, or as a quirky comic presence in movies like Bridesmaids or Blockers, Cena was an enormously likable and charismatic presence. If his Fast and Furious character had been one of Dominic Toretto’s crew, he probably would have been delightful. Instead, he’s F9’s resident evil badass, a role that doesn’t get to tap into any of his skills as an actor beyond his burly physique.
Even worse, Cena plays Vin Diesel’s brother, which is sort of like casting Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as twins, but not as a joke. Cena is Jakob Toretto, Dom’s long-lost sibling who he conveniently forgot to mention a single time in the previous eight Fast and Furious movies. Occasional flashbacks throughout F9 reveal the source of Dom and Jakob’s rift, and the reason the latter became a ruthless mercenary while the former turned into the greatest mechanic street racer truck hijacker drift king secret agent barbecue enthusiast the world has ever seen.
That’s all in Dom’s past now, though. (Except maybe the barbecue enthusiast part.) For the sake of protecting his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his young son, he now lives off the grid on a farm — at least until the members of his former team show up with an urgent message. Their old boss, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), was shot down in a plane transporting criminal super-hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron) and some kind of all-important device named Ares. Dom is reluctant to return to a life of globetrotting adventure; after all, he has responsibilities to his family, and if we’ve learned anything about Dominic Toretto over the last 20 years, is that the only thing that matters to him (besides Dodge Chargers, shirts with no sleeves, ornate necklaces, and Coronas) is family.
Since there wouldn’t be much of a movie if Dom hung out on a farm with a toddler for 140 minutes, he soon changes his mind and heads out into the field once more. It should come as no surprise that Jakob is somehow mixed up in Nobody and Cipher’s disappearances, or that he wants the Ares. It literally does not matter what Ares is or does; what is important is it comes in two pieces and also requires a separate key, which means Dom’s team will have to split up to find them all before Jakob does. As they race around the world, they recruit some new allies, along with a few familiar faces from the franchise’s long history — including fan favorite Han (Sung Kang), who debuted and died in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, was brought back to life in Fast & Furious (which was technically a prequel), died again (with a new backstory) in Fast & Furious 6, and now returns to life in F9 after they offer another explanation for his previous deaths. (Deaths plural.)
Yes, F9’s mythology is so convoluted, it officially retcons a previous retcon from another Fast and Furious movie. For a long time, this series’ heartfelt and intricate continuity was its secret weapon. Dominic Toretto’s endless speeches about the importance of family were backed up by movies energized by the deep bonds between the characters. Now that we’re two decades into this series, there’s just too many heroes and villains (and fans) to service — and F9 keeps adding more or bringing back old ones like Han, who has very little to do once he’s alive again except make the other characters happy to see him.
Diesel gets to brood about his past every 15 minutes or so; the rest of the cast only exists to service their spy missions in a variety of ways. (Tyrese Gibson’s Roman is the best driver and comic relief; Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey is a computer hacker, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’ Tej used to be a mechanic but now he’s kind of a hacker too, and so on.) F9 is so overstuffed with flashbacks and side quests that it’s missing the elements that would have made the main story make sense; looking through my notes, there are elements of the plot that remain absolutely baffling. Like: Why Thue Ersted Rasmussen’s Otto is bankrolling Jakob’s schemes? Apparently he doesn’t get along with his dad, who is a dictator of an unseen country somewhere? If so, the father never appears in the film, or gets mentioned by name.
Director Justin Lin’s approach to dealing with these plot holes is sort of like Dominic Toretto’s plan when confronted by a private army of gun-toting maniacs: He steps on the gas and drives right through them. If F9 becomes hopelessly confusing on a narrative level, Lin — returning to the franchise he transformed from “Point Break with cars” to “Super-spies with cars” as director of Fasts 3 through 6 — still maintains his flair for over-the-top auto stunts. F9 opens with Diesel swinging a car on a wire like Spider-Man and only gets more ridiculous from there, culminating in the series’ long-awaited arrival in outer space. That sequence somehow does not disappoint and stands as the the film’s clear comedic highlight, although some of the stunts that involve Dom’s team using magnets to attract and repel other cars are pretty amusing too.
F9 is the moment the Fast and Furious franchise went full Moonraker — and not just because both movies include preposterous climaxes in space. Like the James Bond saga, Fast and Furious began as a relatively stripped-down action thriller and gradually shed any connection to real-world politics, espionage, and physics. By F9, the characters are so cartoonishly powerful they actually joke onscreen about the fact that they may actually be immortals.
Even as it takes Fast and Furious to literal new heights (and marks a significant improvement from The Fate of the Furious), F9 never tops the franchise’s best entries. It’s simply too complicated and too long to surpass something like Fast Five. Plus, the action doesn’t have to be believable in a Fast movie, but the characters’ relationships do. Despite all the scenes set in Dom and Jakob’s past, their rivalry never becomes more than the flimsy excuse to strap some rockets to a Pontiac and send it into orbit.
-There is a mid-credits scene that’s worth staying for.
-We’re now two movies into Charlize Theron’s involvement with Fast & Furious, and these movies still haven’t found a single fun or interesting thing for her to do. This time, she spends the entire movie locked in a tiny plastic prison cell like Hannibal Lecter in red leather pants — except that sounds kind of great and in practice her role is pointless.
-When Cipher discovers Jakob is Dom’s brother despite their total lack of physical resemblance, she remarks that he must be from the “Nordic strain” of the vaunted Toretto bloodline. If that remark makes you smile, you are the target audience for F9.