The Fast & Furious franchise has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Moreso than that I feel that it’s a film franchise worthy of praise for its immense success in a variety of ways many of which have gone overlooked.
It goes without saying that the films have achieved an incredible financial success at the box office but what film franchise other than James Bond and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made it to 9 movies (10 including the 2019 spinoff Hobbs & Shaw) with audiences still wanting more? For it to have lost then regained for the most part the same main cast of actors, for it to have evolved into something completely different than what it started off as and for it to still work as well as it does in its target audience’s eyes has got to be praised. The franchise is in fact so huge that even successful film franchises like The Expendables or Star Trek have themselves self destructed trying to cash in in one way or another.
It keeps being brought up how ridiculous it is that what started out as a movie about a gang stealing VCRs has turned into a huge budget spy movie franchise with those same characters destroying tanks or going into outer space. This is all true but it’s not something I find myself being irritated by nearly as much as I am by the people who keep bringing it up with every new installment. 2001’s The Fast & The Furious while a popular film that launched Vin Diesel to stardom was itself labled, somewhat justifiably, as a Point Break ripoff with cars in exchange for surfboards. Its always been hard for me to find fault in the fact that one type of shlocky fun action film turned into a different type of schlocky fun action film.
Paul Walker’s tragic passing effected the films greatly. He wasnt just a main character in the movies, from the start he was the actual protagonist of them. On top of that his continuing to star in the initial sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious while Vin Diesel would not return to the franchise until film 4 means that his death would have effectively destroyed the saga’s trajectory. The odd thing is it didn’t, not due to any shortcoming in the quality of the series’ writing or characters, but because “F&F” had grown to something entirely different by then it could survive the loss of a main character.
Allow me to go on a little here but this is why I’m a fan of the series 20 years later. With 2 Fast 2 Furious Vin Diesel not returning meant the movie instead of pairing Paul Walker’s Brian with Dom paired him with Tyrese Gibson’s Roman as well as other new characters. 2006’s F&F: Tokyo Drift acted as an entire reboot of the franchise focusing on a new character and his story in the Japanese car drifting world. It introduced the character of Han (Sung Kang) who’s death in that film became an easter egg establishing that F&F 4, 5 & 6 were actually all prequels. Those films were when the series took on more of it’s “familia” theme and became more about the ensemble cast on different steadily crazier and crazier adventures.
Then midway during the production of F&F7 Paul Walker was killed in an unrelated car accident. This led to massive delays as the filmmakers tried to decide how to proceed with filming or whether to scrap the movie altogether. Amazingly against all odds F&F7 managed to pull off the impossible and actually worked despite the film initially being rushed into production to achieve a next year release date, the resulting loss of Justin Lin (director of all the films since Tokyo Drift) and death of a lead actor midway through filming leading to the film needing to be completely rewritten to work as not only a coherent film but also as a fitting tribute to Paul Walker and a send-off to his character. Not only was it the most financially successful F&F til that point but many fans see it as their favourite film of the series.
Whats worth noting also is that while he had to initially pull out due to scheduling conflicts with his Hercules epic the delay in filming allowed Dwyane Johnson to rejoin the film. This led to the clashing of his character Luke Hobbs with the antagonist Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The chemistry they had together eventually leading to their own spinoff movie Hobbs & Shaw. Point being that a tragic event which should have destroyed the series somehow didnt and the F&F franchise remained as strong as ever for 2 more films.
This brings us (finally) to the delayed release of Fast & Furious 9. The story picks up where F8 of the Furious left off with Dom as a father living the quiet life with his child and his partner Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). They become dragged back into the world of espionage and adventure learning that the Blofeld-like Cipher (Charlize Theron) has been captured and as quickly escaped with the assistance of Jakob (John Cena), Dom’s long estranged brother. Dom and the rest of his famila must do what they can to stop whatever it is that Cipher and Jakob must be planning before it’s too late. Along the way there will be revelations as its revealed that Letty isnt the only series character whose death was greatly overstated.
While there were elements of this movie I found interesting or impressive. Its always a bit of a risky move pulling the “long lost character” trope especially after we’ve known Dom’s family story for so long. That said the film did a surprisingly decent job of weaving Jakob into the back story of the Toretto family and there’s ample use of flashbacks throughout the film to establish the rift which grew between the two brothers. John Cena has the charisma and the menace to easily take on the role of a lead villain in a F&F movir. It is a little far fetched that Jakob also became some sort of evil secret agent at the same time that Dom’s life led him down a similar path but it was two other things which bothered me about Jakob’s shoehorning into the story.
First is that while most of Jakob’s interactions and character development understandably are between himself and his brother Dom there wasn’t a whole lot between him and his sister Mia played by Jordana Brewster making her return to the series after sitting out the last film. One of this film’s strengths and also its weaknesses I believe is its large ensemble cast of characters. Telling a full story, giving everyone enough screen time and having plenty of action sequences can lead to an exceptionally long film (little wonder this movie clocks in at 145 mins and similarly Avengers Endgame was over 3hrs). Also getting such a large cast together can have other issues such as Charlize Theron having a quite small role in this film most of her scenes being filmed on the same set. But Jordana Brewster’s Mia does feel left out a lot but with her being in the film at all the audience is reminded often of the elephant in the room, where is Bryan? I felt a lot of those problems could have been resolved by introducing her later in the film but then she does have some scenes with Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty character who is having her own crisis as to whether she belongs in a domestic life.
Another reason Mia may have been added back to the cast is to give the franchise some more female characters. There was talk a while ago about making a “female oriented” Fast & Furious spinoffvmovie which I hope doesnt happen because the franchise has never not included strong female characters. Especially since the move to an ensemble cast it hasn’t felt anything like a boy’s only club. I would be happy if in the future they continued with the multi racial, multi gendered cast of characters they have now working together rather than try splitting up into segregated films for some reason.
Going back the other problem that I had with Jakob’s inclusion in the story is more to do with the trope itself. The F&F films have already had a villain who turned out to be the until unknown brother of another character in Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw in F&F 7 to Luke Evan’s Owen Shaw in F&F 6. The biggest problem with any long lasting franchise to me is when the storytellers start running out of ideas and repeating themselves. I understand there’s only so many storylines possible but I’m always impressed by creativity and when we are told stories or, in action films, shown action sequences we’ve never seen before. While many others were praising the 2012 Bond film Skyfall I couldn’t help but see it as a collection of themes & ideas & plot devices Frankenstein’d together from other Bond films, Mission: Impossible films and even The Dark Knight.
To it’s credit the F&F films have made it this far without repearing themselves too much. With the exception of the Hobbs & Shaw spinoff the films have always impressed me with being able to come up with new and exciting set pieces and in many ways this film achieves this as well with this film filled to the brim with insane stunts and crazy ideas. However it does feel like the well of ideas may be running a little dry as in F&F 9 they not only have recycled the lost brother idea already used in previous films but also the twist of bringing a character long thought dead back to life. I won’t go into detail on that as I feel it qualifies as a spoiler (even if this character is involved in official promotional meterial for the film) but we are getting into MCU territory here with reincarnations.
Fast 9 is the epitome of a “turn your brain off and enjoy it” movie. At this point 10 films into a franchise I feel like if that hasnt been made clear to people it never will be. Through that lens I found myself enjoying the film while accepting that it is by far not my favourite installment and definitely shows signs that the series is in need of retirement before it becomes too late. With Fast 10 Part 1 & 2 in development and allegedly being the final mainstream film in the saga I think that even the filmmakers can see there’s a time to wrap things up.
3.5 out of 5
Review by Kyle McGrath