F9 ★★★★★

Early in F9 (subtitled The Fast Saga since no one could come up with a pun for this entry—9 isn’t an easy number to do that with!), Tyrese Gibson’s Roman Pearce narrowly escapes being blown up by a landmine and being crushed by his own tank. Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), the one-time bookie and garage mechanic turned MIT-level tech genius, stares agape, exclaiming “how the hell are you not dead?!” It’s merely the first of a long series of fourth-wall breaking moments in F9 where the film attempts to reconcile with itself. Moments like this would and should be inevitable in a franchise that has not only managed to stay alive for nine entries without major changes or reboots to the continuity or the cast list (save Paul Walker’s unfortunate passing) but increased the stakes with each setpiece—nevermind each movie—to a degree of unbelievability. Yet the genius of the Fast saga and this entry in particular lies in how it approaches these facts not with grating self-depreciation and/or “eat it up, you morons” referential humor, but instead with earnestness and open-hearted curiosity. In many ways, F9 is an examination of why these characters are so entertaining and beloved at this point, looking at their resilience from a philosophical point of view. 

The film works thanks to director/co-writer Justin Lin and co-writers Alfredo Botello and Daniel Casey purchasing each big ask of the audience as cleverly as they can. Like all good latter-day sequels, F9 finds its footing by going all the way back to the start, finally depicting the events monologued by Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel, for better or worse the big strong softie core of the series) back in the original movie, that being Dom’s professional stock car racing father’s tragic demise on the track. It turns out that demise may have been caused by the previously unseen and unmentioned Toretto brother, Jakob (John Cena, credibly tough while hiding old emotional wounds). The film makes that soap-opera-y retcon go down easier by giving Jakob a torrid past that’s rooted in family strife (and has Charlize Theron’s Cheshire Cat-like Cypher call out Cena’s non-resemblance to Diesel winkingly), their beef plenty legitimate and Jakob’s absence easier to swallow in the midst of a series that’s now become about jet-setting superspy street racers. Unlike the last five years of Disney-produced blockbusters, the flashback sequences here make use of young actors to portray the younger Dom (Vinnie Bennett) and Jakob (Finn Cole), and even though some of their performances may have been enhanced by some digital technology, it’s enough of a tangible comfort that it allows all the subsequent wildness to work.

The whole film operates like that—if you’ll believe the secret brother, you’ll believe Han (Sung Kang) is still alive, turned by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and doing heroics from the shadows since his “death.” If you believe that, you’ll believe a giant magnet that can operate however the crew needs it to, doing everything from pulling objects around to flinging cars into the path of a vehicle to stop it. If you believe that, you’ll believe Tej and Roman can literally go into outer space to stop a satellite, that Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) can jump onto a moving car unscathed, that Mia (Jordana Brewster) understands advanced weapons systems, that Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) can learn to drive well enough within minutes, that Queenie (Helen Mirren) and Dom have a magnificent chemistry, that three of the main characters of Tokyo Drift (Lucas Black’s Sean, Bow Wow’s Twinkie and Jason Tobin’s Earl) can make a welcome return, and—most importantly—that Walker’s Brian O’Conner is still out there, loving his wife and raising his son. 

F9 is a madcap romp from place to place, the film practically overwhelming you with spectacle from the get-go (this is a movie where Dom uses a broken rope-bridge to fly between two cliffs in a car—and survive—and that’s just in the first action sequence). Lin’s triumphant return to the series proves why he’s not only earned his place at the barbecue but how he’s found the perfect approach for the films, one that’s consistent yet always eager to push further. Most of all, Lin understands how those of us who’ve followed this series from the beginning want to believe all of it—we want to believe cars can do these crazy things, just as we want to believe that there’s a core of humanity lurking within every person. Even Cypher, the most sociopathic of all Fast villains, seems motivated by a yet-to-be-revealed rage that might be deeper than simply being thwarted by the Toretto crew too many times. We want to believe, as Roman speculates, that these characters are invincible not for wish-fulfillment or aspirational reasons or even sci-fi/fantasy nonsense, but because we love the way they love each other. If the Fast saga continues in this fashion, whether it’s for just a few more movies or another dozen, then it will truly cheat death.

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