Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Back when the original The Fast and the Furious (2001) was released, no one thought it would become one of the most over the top and bizarre action franchises. The original was a relatively cheap copy of Point Break (1991), but without the self-awareness or goofy charm. The Fast and the Furious was inherently goofy, but expected us to take it seriously as a grounded crime story. The series didn’t breakthrough into mainstream popularity until it started embracing its silliness. Ironically, leaning into the stupidity actually endeared audiences to the ‘story’, resulting in the series becoming a multi-billion dollar blockbuster enterprise. With F9: The Fast Saga (2021), it’s possible the series might have finally veered too far into the absurd.
Following the events of The Fate of the Furious (2017), Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) have retired from their car-related spy adventures to raise Dom’s son, Brian. They are pulled back into the world of high-octane espionage when they receive a transmission from Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), calling for their help in recovering a dangerous technological artefact known as Ares. For this mission, Dom and Letty reunite with their team Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson). Things go sideways when they discover that Dom’s previously unseen brother Jakob (John Cena) is working with the evil cyberterrorists in trying to acquire Ares. Meanwhile, the leader of the group Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) has captured Cipher (Charlize Theron), who may or may not have ulterior motives.
Absurdity is the order of the day, as falls from great heights, cataclysmic explosions and physically impossible stunts (mostly involving cars) rarely cause our heroes any issues. Part of the fun is seeing these apparently normal humans exhibit superhuman feats of strength and invulnerability, coming out of inane scenarios without a scratch. Classic action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone made careers out of this, but this franchise gives their ridiculous heroics to an entire cast of characters. The trick to pulling this off is to play it all completely straight, letting the viewer’s own sense of humour do the work. Regrettably, F9 tries to be in on the joke by making its characters openly acknowledge the insane things fans have been laughing at for years. While self-awareness can enhance the viewing experience, it comes across here as the filmmakers trying to shield themselves from criticism without actually addressing it. It would’ve been better if the film just continued to ignore the nonsensical elements.
Despite veering into self-parody, F9 does try to inject drama into the proceedings. Ever since the genuinely touching ending of Furious 7 (2015), the production team has been trying to create that same level of emotional resonance. Consequently, the emotional thread reaches unparalleled levels of melodrama, which would be fine if the rest of the film complemented it. The narrative jumps wildly between constantly goofy action and uncomfortably soapy drama, resulting in a very inconsistent tone. This causes the action to feel overly serious during the most inappropriate moments, as well as making the dramatic scenes comically overdone. What’s most upsetting is that moments which try to recapture the emotion of Furious 7 now feel underdeveloped and in bad taste. This is tied to the lingering absence of the late Paul Walker, which sadly can never be filled.
With that in mind, the extended world-building of this franchise is becoming more and more convoluted with each new entry. Minor and unimportant plot holes aside, the series’ internal mythology has been fairly self-sustaining even when certain details have been retroactively changed. However, F9 breaks that lucky streak by overcomplicating things to a ridiculous degree. To be fair, it’s not as if anyone is particularly concerned with the story continuity, but it does affect the audience’s narrative investment this time around. The inconsistencies are so numerous and noticeable that you end up questioning everything instead of just relaxing and suspending your disbelief. This even affects your enjoyment of the action, as you struggle to even let yourself accept the film on its own terms. You want to be having fun, yet you can’t help but be a little bit bored.
None of these Fast and Furious movies are particularly complex, but part of what makes the good ones work is their simplicity. We need a simple plot and a simple character arc. Fast Five (2011) and Furious 6 (2013) are the best examples of this, delivering fun, pulpy adventures we could easily get invested in without being forced to think too hard. With F9, it feels like the series is trying to beat Mission Impossible (1995 – 2018) at its own game, throwing in constant twists, reveals, double-crosses and overwritten clue hunting. This works in Mission Impossible because the stakes and objectives are clear, not to mention that each reveal neatly folds into the next. In F9, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to how each story point folds into the next. Weirdly, this makes F9 incredibly hard to follow or make sense of, which is odd considering the story is paper thin.
The biggest and most egregious fault of F9 is how it deals with what has been widely seen as the franchises’ key narrative theme: family. Considering the series revolves around over the top action and endless testosterone, the actual utility of the ‘family’ angle has always been tenuous at best. For the most part, it’s really just been there so that the films can feel like they’re about something more than what they are. Previous entries in the franchise have gotten away with it because there was time spent actually building genuinely endearing relationships between the characters. F9 tries its best, but it doesn’t register as it’s buried underneath a plethora of explosive nonsense. It was already hard to take the franchise seriously whenever it tried to make us believe it was all about family, but this time it feels like it’s clutching at straws.
Fast and Furious films are tough to review, considering they are deliberately trashy yet are still made with care. You have to walk a fine line between taking it for what it is and giving it a fair critique. Fast Five, Furious 6, and Furious 7 are the standard bearers, as they successfully deliver cheesy fun with just the right amount of self-awareness. On the surface, F9 appears to be following the same mould, but the ingredients don’t quite mix.
Best way to watch it: With at least four beers, so you can make it through without getting bored.