Fast & Furious 9 (2021) finds the franchise, without The Rock, in a hard place.
Famously, the cast of the original STAR TREK didn’t get on. In that, at least, there is some common ground between STAR TREK and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. A similar rift exists at the heart of the “when you’re here, you’re family” franchise thanks to the lingering animus between Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and self-proclaimed leader of the franchise Vin Diesel. The thing about the STAR TREK discontent is that you cannot detect any hint of it on screen – not even once. Things were so bad between Diesel and Johnson that they filmed precisely zero scenes together for FAST & FURIOUS 8 and Johnson was subsequently exiled to a spin-off franchise. What has any of this to do with FAST & FURIOUS 9? Pretty much everything because the one thing this movie wants to hammer home is that this franchise is all about the Toretto family, and Dominic Toretto in particular.
Enduring an idyllic retirement, Dom (Diesel) and Lettie (Michelle Rodriquez) are recalled to action by Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) when Mr Nobody’s plane crashes in Montecito, Central America. Although reluctant, Dom realises that his heretofore unmentioned younger brother is somehow involved and joins his former crew for one more job. The job in hand turns out to be a global scavenger hunt to find the components of a weapon system designed to take control of every computer on the planet, with a side order of settling old scores.
No stranger to retconning flashbacks, FAST & FURIOUS 9 elevates it to an art form as it continues the franchise’s other ongoing thread of explaining away the contradictions of THE FAST & THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT as well as adding a great deal more backstory to the Toretto family itself. It’s an egregiously heavy-handed way of centring the drama firmly onto Diesel’s character to the exclusion of almost everything else, including Jordana Brewster’s return as Toretto’s younger sister. Not since the fifth season of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER has a sibling been so blatantly crowbarred into an ongoing storyline and while John Cena does the best he can with the material he’s given, the writing, focus and characterisation is such that he’s basically just there to reinforce how much of a badass Vin Diesel – err, I mean, Dominic Toretto is. It’s a waste of his already established talents which will hopefully be rectified in future F&F instalments.
Since it made a deliberate course-correction away from petty criminality and street racing in favour of an action/ spy caper model The Fast Saga has consistently upped the ante when it comes to high concept action and adventure, seemingly locked in a race with Tom Cruise’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise for the trailblazing action movie crown which used to belong to BOND through the seventies and eighties. With FAST & FURIOUS 9, though, The Fast Saga overreaches itself and accelerates past high-concept into high-farce and self-parody. The laws of physics, previously treated with casual disregard by the series are here subjected to the kind of flouting and egregious disrespect usually reserved for the Ministerial Code by the current UK Government.
The set-pieces are as spectacular as they are nonsensical and, like MOONRAKER before it, FAST & FURIOUS 9 discovers that it’s rarely a wise move for earthbound espionage antics to take a leap into the final frontier. The less said about how judiciously selective the magnets which hold much of the plot (such as it is) together are, the better.
There’s still fun to be had, of course, and here and there are glimpses of the wit and energy the series used to have blasting out of its tailpipe but in Diesel’s blatant attempt to cement his grip on the series in Johnson’s absence (and lacking the equilibrium presence of the real star of the franchise, the late, lamented Paul Walker) gives everything the same dour air of over-earnest seriousness that Dominic Toretto has. I think he even deliberately deepens his already gravelly voice at times, too.
It revs so high and so hard trying to be fun and outrageous that it forgets it hasn’t tightened the bolts holding the cinematic chassis together. Its storytelling idles when it should purr, especially around the identity and motivations of the bad guys. Where we should be kicking brand-new high-performance tyres in admiration, this once-dominant box office vehicle feels like it’s running on worn narrative retreads and badly in need of another tune-up.