At some point, we’re all just going to have to stop questioning how much gas the “Fast & Furious” franchise has left in the tank and accept the fact that a series about fast cars and the people who push them beyond their limits isn’t slowing down anytime soon. And honestly, that’s fine by me. Somewhere around the fourth and fifth installments, the series started pushing its action scenes so far beyond the point of believability, it felt like every subsequent movie left the audience with the question, “What could they possibly do next?” Even though we are now on the ninth film in the series (the tenth if you include the 2019 spin-off “Hobbs & Shaw,” although personally I’d rather forget about that), “F9” tops what came before, and distracts from its ludicrous, macguffin-stuffed plot with scenes that bring it all back to what this series is ultimately about: family.
“F9” takes place some time after 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious.” Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has retired, and lives in seclusion with his young son Brian and wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). But their solitude is quickly interrupted by a visit from their friends Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). Cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), the villain of the previous movie, is back, and their old accomplice Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) has sent the team a message from his plane as it’s being attacked. The group travels to the site of the plane crash in Central America to investigate, and secured in the wreckage they find a piece of Aries, a device that can hack into any computer weapons system. Now I’m not going to wade too far into the weeds with this—the intricacies of Cipher and her pompous rich boy associate Otto’s (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) scheme ultimately aren’t that important. What you really need to know is that working for them is Jakob (John Cena), Dom’s long-estranged brother who possesses driving and combat skills similar to Dom.
The rest of the film pits the brothers against each other, while also serving as a reunion of sorts for the characters of the oft-maligned (but rightfully reexamined and appreciated in the years since its release) third movie in the series, “Tokyo Drift.” It would have been nice had the latter group been given a bit more time in the spotlight as opposed to having to play second fiddle to Cena, who seems to have been cast less because he was the right actor for the role and more because the filmmakers wanted another ridiculously buff former fighter to fill the shoes left by Dwayne Johnson. But the return of Han (Sung Kang), previously believed killed by Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, is appropriately, and genuinely emotional. His return does tie directly into the attempt to keep Aries out of Cipher’s hands in a way that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute, (seriously, Han and the girl he has been protecting, Elle, deserve much better treatment than being used as a plot device) but it does bring about one of the more humanizing moments involving Jakob. When he sees Han again for the first time, Dom embraces him tightly as tears well in his eyes. Jakob, nearby but ignored, watches the exchange between Dom and his found family, and bows his head.
Flashbacks throughout the film delve farther into the relationship between Dom and Jakob (their younger counterparts played by Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole) and how they got to where they are now, beginning with the death of their father in a racetrack accident. These flashbacks are cut into the film at just the right moments to give us a break from the breakneck action, and they also result in this feeling like a much more character-driven story told against the backdrop of death-defying stunts. Jordana Brewster is also back as Dom’s sister Mia, who is on Dom’s team but serves as a sort of neutral ground for the brothers, making this a real family affair.
Justin Lin returns to direct “F9,” his first film in the series since “Fast & Furious 6” (Lin helmed movies three through six and is largely credited with resurrecting the potentially dying franchise beyond anyone’s wildest dreams). “F9” is also the first film in the series since 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious” not to be written by Chris Morgan. The screenplay is instead by Daniel Casey with Lin, and while all the characters’ personalities and the film’s themes of family remain intact (the actors having long since settled comfortably into their roles by now), this movie is much more self-aware than its predecessors. On the one hand, that gives this movie the advantage of cutting off any detractors who reason that the film isn’t realistic by essentially saying well, no, of course it isn’t. While certain scenes may come off as a bit too meta—like a conversation between Roman, Tej, and Ramsey in which Roman makes the argument that they must be invincible because none of the crazy stuff they’ve pulled has killed them yet—they aren’t overdone to the point where they pull you too far out of the movie. And before you know it, something else crazy has happened, and you’re sucked right back in again.
Sure, “F9” might not be great. It’s not really as funny as it seems to think it is, the villains are pretty lame and one-dimensional, and as the longest installment in the series so far at almost two and a half hours, it’s stuffed with much more than it needs to be. By the climax, the action reaches a point where it is so unbelievable it’s laughable. But I can’t think of any other series that successfully pulls off the most ridiculous stunts conceivable for a story still technically set in the real world, only to pull back around with sincerely sweet moments that bring tears to your eyes. Like the previous movies, from old characters, new faces, and the way they continue to include Paul Walker’s Brian in the narrative, “F9” never lets us forget about what these films are really about. Say what you will about how well the rest of the movie does or doesn’t work; “F9” gets it right where it counts.
“F9” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 145 minutes. Rated PG-13.