**1/2 out of ****
(for sequences of violence and action, and language)
Released: June 25, 2021
Runtime: 145 minutes
Directed by: Justin Lin
Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, John Cena, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Charlize Theron, Sung Kang, Thue Ersted Rasmussen, Anna Sawai, Lucas Black, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell
F9 isn’t a good movie, but it’s a fun time at the movies.
This latest lap around the track of muscle cars, espionage and family is absolutely preposterous in every feasible respect. Utterly ridiculous, F9: The Fast Saga is like a parody of itself but played straight. While never self-serious, the Diesel-led cast and returning Fast Five director Justin Lin don’t seem to be aware that the writers obviously submitted this mockery of a screenplay as a joke…right?
To be clear, that shouldn’t deter you. These aren’t gripes; they’re selling points. If you’re a fan of the franchise to any degree (even if just to enjoy each one once for what it is, as I have) then there’s no reason you shouldn’t jump onboard for the unabashedly imbecilic ride that F9 takes you on – all the way to outer space.
Despite a bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime, plot details are basically irrelevant – but here’s the framework. Vin Diesel’s Dom comes out of rural bucolic hiding to save the world. He’s coaxed by the Fast crew to retrieve a thing for Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) from the wreckage of a plane crash.
That thing ends up being half-a-thing that, when whole, can hijack the entire world’s defense systems. Quite a little gizmo, huh? And wouldn’t you know it, but the main guy in their way is Dom’s long lost evil brother Jakob (John Cena), a super spy killing machine working with Charlize Theron’s cyberterrorist Cipher.
Retrieving the two halves of this hi-tech weapo-sphere before Jakob does leads the gang on yet another globetrotting adventure, packed with death-defying chases and ballistic explosions, each set-piece going well beyond a quarter mile at a time and always at full throttle.
The locations are either lush or plush, from exotic locales to posh parties, all making for what would likely be a redneck greaseball’s glamour dream; James Bond meets the Dukes of Hazzard sans the confederate flag, every moment dripping in testosterone-soaked machismo.
The absurdity is non-stop, too, not only from how these heroes escape with their lives out of one lethal stunt after another but also in how they survive each time with nary a scratch. It’s all so incredibly effortless that even Roman and Tej (Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris) can’t help but have a running conversation about everyone’s invincibility.
The moments of human connection and dramatic tension aren’t so much effective as eye-rolling, as if soap opera writers were explicitly hired to polish up emotional scenes with laughably corny dialogue. But doggonit if you don’t love the producers (Diesel among them) for making the extra effort to slather on all that cheese.
The end result is a high-octane cartoon of non-toxic masculinity, where balls to the wall action carries no substantial stakes whatsoever because everyone here is as immune to mortality as Wile E. Coyote is. The laws of physics are defied as often as death, including an unexpectedly heavy reliance on super magnets (which allows Justin Lin to amp up the wanton destruction in gleefully obnoxious spectacles).
Along the way, Fast fans get to see some key backstory play out that they’ve likely longed to see, as well as a constant barrage of cameos that are meaningful to them if lost on the casual viewer. The core returning crew continues to shine with their chemistry, charisma and charm, even if most of the newer additions can’t help but feel like well-paid outsiders crashing the party. (John Cena especially, who’s a bit of a meathead stiff. He may want to duplicate Dwayne Johnson‘s post-wrestling career trajectory, but he lacks the playful mystique that The Rock’s got cookin’.)
What sets this nonsense apart from most other mindless blockbusters is the impressive orchestration of it all, still surprisingly inventive after nine films and running. Its pure audacity and total lack of pretense makes for an infectious, hilarious mix, even when you’re shaking your head at how stupid it can be.
One of the early casualties of the pandemic era, F9 had to wait fourteen months from its initial April 2020 release date to finally hit theaters. (The delay, serendipitously, has allowed it to open the week of the franchise’s 20th anniversary.) I don’t know if the end result was necessarily worth the wait, but F9 sure works as a slick, easy, and entertaining re-entry back into the multiplex.