de facto film reviews 2.5 stars

The Fast & Furious franchise has had one of the stranger journeys in any modern film franchise. What started out centering on illegal street racing in the streets of LA, to the streets of Tokyo, eventually moved its way to an international heist in Brazil, to globetrotting spy missions that involve hunting technological terrorists with weapons capable of bringing society to a collapse. The series’ goofy charm that always wore its heart on its sleeve always felt in on the joke, with a self-reverence that made it easy to laugh at, while still taking things seriously, sometimes all in the same scene. F9: The Fast Saga, the ninth film in the franchise, not including the 2019 spinoff film Hobbs & Shaw, takes the series beyond the line of cartoonish and may have finally jumped the shark.

Picking up a few years after the events of The Fate of the Furious, we find Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) living a quiet life with Dom’s young son. They’re called back into action to stop a group of rogue agents from getting their hands on this films McGuffin “project aries”, a device that can hack into any computer system on the planet. Not to mention the agents are led by Dom’s younger brother, Jakob (John Cena), a character that is never once mentioned in the franchise up until this point, but let’s face it, that’s the least of this movie’s problems.

After taking a two film break, Justin Lin returns behind the camera and brings his kinetic sense of energy along with him. An early action sequence involving a mine field shows the best of what Lin can offer to this franchise; insane, thrilling action that’ll have you cackling with glee while on the edge of your seat.  Some fan service-y moments land exceptionally well with the mid-credits scene proving the films most satisfying sequence. Unfortunately, the lack of stakes have become a big issue now, sucking some of the fun out of the action later on, particularly when the film cranks itself up to a constant operating speed of 11. Tyrese Gibson’s Ronan makes a self-referential point about how the crew has managed to scrap by so many near-death experiences with nothing more than a scratch, with the film coming to the consensus that they’re just lucky. In any other installment, this bit of self-reference would hit its mark, but the characters have essentially become full-blown superheroes at this point. What was once a thrill seeing a character save another by leaping out of a speeding car and catching them mid-air, only to land safely on the hood of a tank 50 feet away, has now become numbing when that exact same stunt, but crazier, is repeated 100 other times throughout the film.

Lin starts out on focusing on the best aspects as of the franchise; namely the charm of its irresistible cast. Diesel and Rodriguez, along with Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel and Jordana Brewster are once again all great together, keeping the weaker aspects of this film (and the franchise for that matter) at bay. While the franchise has struggled to find its identity after the tragic loss of star Paul Walker, the cast is still an undeniable asset to the success of the films. Charlize Theron makes a brief return as the villain, Cypher, and chews the scenery nicely. Helen Mirren returns once again for an amusing cameo. John Cena, unfortunately, is ill-used as the bitter younger brother on Dom. Cena, whose strengths tend to come from charismatic comedic turns in films such as Blockers and Trainwreck, is flat from the moment he appears on-screen. There’s a severe lack of depth to the character and Cena’s two-dimensional stoicism adds nothing of interest. The entire dynamic of Dom and Jakob, told largely via flashbacks that don’t work as well as they should despite a memorable performance from Vinnie Bennett as a young Vin Diesel, is undercooked, with little to no emotional heft.

F9: The Fast Saga is this franchise’s Moonraker in that we’ve shot past the point of self-parody and into the loopy stratosphere one simply can’t turn back from. Magnet planes, explosions that leave nothing but some dust on our heroes, and downright disobeying the laws of psychics are now the norm here. At no point do we get the feeling that our heroes are ever in peril, especially when half of the characters thought to be dead keep coming back. While fan-favorite character Han (Sung Kang) does make an a highly enjoyable return, are we to expect every deceased character to return? Is Gal Gadot’s Giselle still alive despite falling out of a moving plane? Paul Walker’s Brian (not dead in the series, just retired) is awkwardly mentioned, but thankfully not seen; is he poised to make a return via CG doubles or stand-in? Lin’s handle on action sequences are still just as fresh as they were 15 years ago when he joined the franchise, but with no stakes or interesting motivation, there’s less reason to care than ever.

If the Fast & Furious franchise truly found its stride with Fast Five and kept a consistent level of quality until Furious 7, than F9 follows in the footsteps of The Fate of the Furious in continuing the downward trajectory in quality. F9: The Fast Saga is ridiculous, and on occasion, ridiculously fun; however, the charm of what made this franchise appealing is disappearing before our very eyes. Credit where credit is due, it’s hard to find a franchise that, with nine entries in, still manages to be fun despite itself, but even when Jason Voorhees went to space, he had to come back down to earth and fight Freddy Krueger shortly thereafter.