The last 30 days have been a whirlwind of cinema. A high-speed, NOS-fueled whirlwind of cinema.
With the long-awaited “F9” on the horizon, I realized it was time to address one of my biggest blind spots in film: “The Fast Saga.” Prior to May 2021, I had never known of the exploits of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker). The spin-off “Hobbs & Shaw” marked the extent of my “Fast” knowledge, thanks to my undying love of Dwayne Johnson, but the epic stories of the main franchise had eluded me.
I expected to find a series of fun yet dumb turn-your-brain-off action movies — and while they certainly have their logic-defying moments — I was shocked at how quickly I became truly, genuinely enthralled by these movies.
Now, armed with a full understanding of “The Fast Saga,” “F9” has arrived, and the result is everything a fan of the franchise could ever want. While a convoluted plot holds “F9” back from being a top-tier entry, the explosions are still huge, the family is reunited once more, and both the NOS and Corona are flowing in an action-packed summer blockbuster.
The only thing “The Fast Saga” knows better than explosions is family, and while it’s easy to mock the motto in Diesel’s gravely grumble, the movies practice what they preach. More so than any tank or submarine, these characters and their deep, tangible bonds are what kept me coming back. From boosting DVD players to blasting into outer space, the stakes of the series constantly changed, but the importance of family never did. There’s a reason “Tokyo Drift” felt like an outlier in both story and quality, while the universally-beloved “Fast Five” is widely regarded as the franchise’s best: one has Vin Diesel and Paul Walker-sized holes, while the other coincides with the first iteration of the full extended family in action together.
So, when “F9” came knocking promising to introduce the brother of Mr. Family himself, questions naturally surfaced. How could Dominic Toretto – the man who said “You don’t turn your back on family, even when they do,” after being shot by his own wife – be hiding a long-lost brother? It turns out his younger brother, Jakob (John Cena), was responsible for the death of their father, as well as Dom’s infamous stint in prison, and director Justin Lin more than justifies this secret from Dom’s past throughout the film.
While Cipher (Charlize Theron), the conniving villainess from “Fate of the Furious,” is still around in “F9,” Jakob and a new forgettable, power-hungry big bad named Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) take centerstage with a plot to hijack all of the world’s nuclear weapons. The specifics of the plan don’t matter – two MacGuffins here, another one there – it’s all just an excuse to send our favorite crew around the world, leaving tire marks and destruction in their wake.
As much fun as “F9” may be, there’s no denying that its plot is overly complex. At a franchise-record 145-minutes, the film is overstuffed with more twists, reveals and resurrections than ever before, and while more usual equals better when it comes to “Fast,” that’s not necessarily the case here. Between flashback sequences explaining Dom and Jakob’s past, a globe-trotting second act that sends the family on three different missions at once, and a who’s who of faces from “Fasts” past, it’s a lot – even for a “Fast” film.
While “F9’s” plot quite literally deals with the end of the world, its holes and lapses in logic are not, because at the end of the day, these movies require viewers to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. “F9” asks for that leniency even more frequently than its predecessors, particularly when it comes to the return of fan-favorite Han (Sung Kang), who seemingly died back in “Tokyo Drift.” His revival was teased from the start in “F9’s” trailers, but it wasn’t until now that the how of it all was revealed, and to be honest, it’s still not entirely clear. As soon as Han finishes his explanation, the bad guys conveniently attack, preventing audiences from thinking too long or hard about the logic of it all.
Based on the hooting and hollering from the packed opening-night theater I was in, it didn’t seem that anybody was too bothered by it. “The Fast Saga” is bonkers, and “F9” is no exception – and what better way to return to the theater than with a joyous, action-packed thrill ride?
With Lin back in the driver’s seat for the first time since “Fast & Furious 6,” the franchise’s most reliable director has brought the saga back to its roots. The heart and emotion that “Fate of the Furious” lacked is back, and at the same time, the series returns its focus to four wheels on the ground. It’s hard to call the film that launches Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) into outer space a “return to the street racing roots” of the series, but “F9” certainly feels that way. The stakes have been continually raised – and as a whole they’re even higher here – but a significant lack of tanks and submarines helps this film feel significantly more grounded, despite its extraterrestrial sequences.
Through nine mainline films and a spin-off, “The Fast Saga” has offered low-budget crime thrillers to action-packed global blockbusters and everything in between. “F9” may not deliver many surprises, yet there is more than enough happiness and comfort to be found in massive set pieces, lovable characters and high-speed insanity.
With Diesel promising another two movies before the franchise calls it quits, there’s plenty of gas left in the “Fast & Furious” tank. Salud, mi familia.
“F9” is now playing in theaters.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.