‘F9’ Rides the ‘Fast and Furious’ Franchise Into Higher Levels of Popcorn Absurdity

After 20 years the best one can say about the “Fast and Furious” franchise is that it knows how to service its fan base. “F9: The Fast Saga” flexes and hits the road with the attitude of someone who genuinely does not care what anyone thinks except for family. You have two choices when walking into this summer behemoth: Scoff and elevate your nose at the sheer absurdity of the whole thing, or admit it maintains a high level of brainless entertainment for  2 hours and 25 minutes. What began with a quite simple, efficient heist movie in 2001 with “The Fast and the Furious” has now driven so far off the original roadmap that this latest entry even makes it into space.

By now this whole saga has become so convoluted that all you need to know going in is that Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is trying to live the simple, outdoorsman life with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their young son. Picturesque serenity is broken when down the road comes the old crew, Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson). It turns out a distress signal has been received from old friend Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), who has apparently been captured by nefarious forces. Earth faces a double threat: A madman seeks to take control of a device to spread mass technological chaos and destroy civilization while Cipher (Charlize Theron), the global terrorist arch nemesis from the last film, has escaped and is part of the diabolical scheme. Dom and the team ride out to the first locale, an exotic island where a wild car chase through mountains and broken bridges culminates in a shocking revelation. The new adversary behind this latest global threat is Jakob (John Cena), Dom’s long lost brother.

 If you’ve made it this far past the summary of the plot, then you must be part of the audience so devoted to this franchise that they will only turn their backs if the next installment gets rid of the cars. Few franchises have strayed so far from the original premise yet stuck to one core element, burning rubber. The original 2001 movie was a simple heist flick about macho street racers who specialized in stealing DVD players (which were a hot commodity at the time). With each new installment Dom and the crew somehow went from skillful mechanics to super spies jetting around the world more times than James Bond. It’s amazing to remember there was a time when Vin Diesel and Tyrese Gibson were featured in strong, serious dramas like “Boiler Room” and “Baby Boy.” Alas, until it runs out of gas the “Fast and Furious” universe is their defining contribution to cinema. What keeps it going is that all storytelling logic, plausibility qualms aside, few of the titles have been boring in the raw sense of the word. 

As directed by Justin Lin, “F9” is an ongoing rollercoaster best experienced on the massive canvas of an IMAX screen. The screenplay by Lin and Daniel Casey deserves no commentary on the plot, because it’s the same one as always (villains want to wreck the planet). Yet the writing is much more self-aware this time, with moments of inside humor that are almost tailored to inspire laughs. There’s no way a flashback where the Toretto’s dad shows his sons a car and compares its maintenance to “family” isn’t meant to be self-mocking. Fans will cheer that Han (Sung Kang), who was supposed to have died in “Fast and Furious 6,” is back. After Han gives a long, emotional monologue about his past, Ramsey can only reply with, “but what about the part about you and an exploding car, and surviving?” The biggest whopper is of course the addition of Dom’s brother, Jakob, perfectly cast in the form of properly muscled alpha male John Cena. An exciting opening scene reveals how Dom and Jakob assisted their dad, a professional race car driver, at a race track. But a tragic, fiery accident for which Dom blames Jakob killed dad, leaving them on their own. We kind of know how Dom went from urban DVD player thief to super spy, but the movie never bothers to explain how life resulted in the extreme coincidence that Jakob too, would become part of the global espionage/terrorist underworld. And he never took off the trademark Toretto cross necklace either. 

The beauty of “F9” is that the filmmakers know few audience members will care to overanalyze any of this. What always lingers from a “Fast and the Furious” movie are the massive stunts and visuals, like that famous Rio chase with a dangling safe in “Fast Five,” or goofy action scenes like Dom using one stomp to collapse an entire section of pavement beneath Jason Statham’s feet in “Furious 7.” Lin keeps the tradition going right from the beginning of this new entry. Cars swing from bridges, barely hanging on to a thread of rope, or planes are prone to pop out of nowhere to fire a missile at Vin Diesel. There’s a magnetic device the heroes attach to their cars to entrap the massive truck/war room being driven by the villains. Sometimes no weapons are needed except biceps, as when Dom brings down an entire concrete ceiling to do away with opponents in SWAT gear. Cena also gets to show off he’s a natural in this franchise by trading fists or gracefully hopping from a speeding truck to a speeding car, swooping into the driver’s seat and hitting the road. Lin doesn’t stop there and eventually has two characters do what has been an in-joke online on where else this franchise has left to go, they fly off into space. That’s right, a car gets strapped with the needed equipment, the heroes slap on makeshift astronaut suits and soon they’re floating above Earth to intercept a satellite for the usual plot reasons. It’s almost a perfect example of an action movie with charming absurdity. 

Every cent that you can imagine would be spent on “F9” is right up there to be seen. And never is the theme of family lost. After all the mayhem and near-deaths, Dom still asks his kid if he’s ready to say grace before dinner. The fan favorites are all back from Charlize Theron’s Cipher, who unfortunately has the most anti-climactic presence here, to Jordana Brewster’s Mia, Dom’s sister who can hack into anything. There’s even time for the smallest but welcome tribute to the late Paul Walker near the end, using just one shot and one car. Lest you think there can’t be any classiness in this series, Helen Mirren makes a wickedly fun cameo as a thief who slyly ogles Dom and can handle a speed machine even better. “F9” is thus the year’s most expensive fan film, made solely to cater to a massive audience that loves these characters and their fever dream adventures. You can fault it for being silly, but you can’t fault it for knowing that’s its purpose. The poster for this one should always pop up when searching the term “you get what you paid for.”

F9: The Fast Saga” releases June 25 in theaters nationwide.