The term “too big to fail” is typically reserved for corporations that reap enormous profits, pay their executives exorbitant bonuses, and then come running for a taxpayer-funded bailout when times get tough, but modern day Hollywood has claimed the term in their own way. A handful of franchises have become pop culture juggernauts guaranteeing success with every entry — the Star Wars empire and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the two obvious ones, with nary a commercial misfire across film and television, but both are backed by the Disney monolith. The Fast & Furious films are newer to the scene, but they’ve quickly joined the conversation with their latest entry, F9, blasting into theaters with as close to a sure thing at the box-office as you’ll ever see. If only quality entertainment was equally ensured.
The series has always been about two things — action and a loose concept of family — and both have grown increasingly ridiculous over the years. That trend continues with F9 as Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) see their idyllic country life interrupted with news that Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) needs their help recovering an Infinity Sto–sorry, a three-part device that can hack anything powered by zeroes and ones, and just like that the pair drop their kid at Brian’s and head to South America.
The usual crew is along for the ride in F9 including Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), while past stragglers like Sean (Lucas Black), Twinkie (Shad Moss), Mia (Jordana Brewster), and Queenie (Helen Mirren) join briefly as well. Also returning? Han (Sung Kang)! Don’t worry, his previous death is explained away with some incomplete nonsense. They’re up against baddies new and old this time with Cipher (Charlize Theron) doing her best Hannibal Lecter alongside a spoiled millionaire (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and a mystery man named Jakob (John Cena) who it turns out is Dom’s younger brother…
Exploring more of the plot is a fool’s errand as neither the film nor the filmmakers seem to care all that much. Instead, they’re intent on delivering exactly what fans have come to love over the franchise’s back half — more nonsense in the dueling forms of action set-pieces and “family” interactions, the latter of which this time around involves endless flashbacks with younger actors playing Dom (Vinnie Bennett) and Jakob (Finn Cole). The formula arguably peaked with 2011’s Fast Five which managed to pair fun character beats with some truly exhilarating action spectacles, but since then both have seen their entertainment value lessen with each subsequent installment. The action has become overly reliant on CG and cartoonish logic making it less impressive and more stupid, and the cherished themes of family? They’ve become so convoluted and Dom-centric that the next backyard barbecue is likely to be held up Diesel’s ass.
The late Paul Walker was an undeniably balance for Diesel, both in character and personality, and his absence continues to be felt throughout F9. “Worst thing you can do to a Toretto is take away his family,” says one character, and it rings far truer than it was probably intended. Without Walker’s charm and charisma as one of the leads, returning director/co-writer Justin Lin and co-writer Daniel Casey continue to succumb to Diesel’s ego and shift the bulk of the “drama” onto his big baby shoulders in the form of weak back story and new revelations. Diesel’s limitations as an actor make it all an exercise in futility, though, as his struggle to demonstrate emotion in his troubled relationship with Jakob leaves that whole storyline falling endlessly flat. Cena, while an entertaining comic actor, is equally at a loss here leaving the two to trade grimaces and chest thumps.
The character moments instead fall to the casual and mostly unfunny banter between Tej and Roman and to the return of Han. The former find themselves cracking wise throughout, per usual, with Tej even mentioning while the duo head to space — yes, Lin and friends succumbed to fan pressure and brought the franchise into orbit (meaning F10 might just see the arrival of dinosaurs…) — that they’ll be okay “as long as we obey the laws of physics.” It’s a meta joke of sorts as the films gave up anything resembling realism a long time ago, and Roman’s insistence that the group is “invincible” only adds to the self-aware silliness for better or worse. The film’s action is grounded only in the sense that it mostly occurs back on Earth with an overused, super-powered magnet wreaking nonsensically convenient, CG-heavy havoc.
Thankfully, Han’s return brings F9‘s only real highlight as he and newcomer Elle (Anna Sawai) inject the first true feeling of family into the franchise in quite a while. Lin, who first brought the character of Han into the series, brings him back and gives the character room to breathe via both flashbacks and present-day interactions. Kang’s presence lands the only real emotion in the film, and seeing Han and Ella in action leaves you with the hope that they’ll soon earn a spin-off of their own.
Fans of the franchise’s later installments will enjoy F9 as more of the same blending silly, cartoon action with soapy dialogue about family and respect. Some, though, are bound to be let down by the “dramatic” filler and underwhelming set-pieces that rely far more on digital trickery than on actual, impactful, and impressive action/stunts. Of course, none of that ultimately matters as the franchise — one that’s also done amazing, respectable things in its longevity, evolving style, and multi-ethnic ensembles — is guaranteed to succeed because it’s now way too big to fail.