As much as audiences were jonesing for an impossibly-scaled blockbuster when F9 finally hit screens, there’s no pleasure at all in reporting that the tenth film in the series lacks some of the “special sauce” which has made it such delirious fun since Fast Five changed the game.
Some might say the dual absence of Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) is the biggest problem, but really, it’s Chris Morgan, who after writing every film in the series from Tokyo Drift onwards, didn’t return to pen F9 because he was busy writing Hobbs & Shaw instead.
While many love to lament the apparently low-intelligence nature of these movies, the fact that Morgan’s non-presence is so abundantly felt speaks to the smart structure and deceptive wit on offer in his screenplays, which going by this movie’s script is harder to replicate than one might expect.
Director Justin Lin, returning for the first time since the sixth entry, co-wrote the film with Daniel Casey (Kin), and it’s hard to not to view the end product through the lens of someone trying to pass off a third or fourth-generation Xerox of a Morgan script as a Morgan original.
The corny, overwrought melodrama is virtually indistinguishable from anime at this point, the film being wildly overstuffed with flashbacks and cheeseball dream sequences, all of it accompanied by aggressively earnest dialogue. And even when the silliness veers in the right direction by bringing Han back from the dead, the explanation is ultimately both tediously foregone and needlessly verbose.
The globe-trotting has never felt more perfunctory than in this entry, where yet another generic-o terrorist is chasing a technological trinket so perfunctory it’s a surprise the film even wastes time explaining it. And as much as Lin and Casey’s script wants to point out the creaks in the formula – even introducing a subplot where Roman questions his own apparent invincibility – the repartee of the last few movies is traded for more predictably broad, low-energy gags this time.
And while F9‘s action certainly delivers on the gravity-and-death-defying lunacy expected by this point, it’s also a rung or two below what’s been offered up recently. Some creative use of magnets and a gut-bustingly silly sojourn to space aside, this doesn’t nearly feel like it’s making the most of Lin’s filmmaking chops. Perhaps it’s in part because our heroes are so utterly incapable of sustaining injuries that it’s difficult to feel an adrenaline buzz when they drive through a minefield or, er, fall hundreds of feet down a sewer shaft.
In an early moment, Dom and Letty’s car slams into the side of a mountain, flips over almost a dozen times, and the pair haven’t got so much as a hair out of place (in Letty’s case, anyway), before Letty lets out the Marvel-worthy quip, “Well, that was new.” Dom suicidally throws himself out of a window later because he knows the universe will materialise a bus to catch him, and as much as fans have been cheerleading the series’ ramping up of absurdity, it perhaps feels like F9 finally reaches the kill-screen for how far it can really be taken.
Again, though, the more creatively wacky set-pieces still work; Tej driving up a rope-bridge while it collapses is a good laugh in addition to the magnet and space-centric sequences, though with its Avengers-sized 145-minute runtime, it’s also fair to say that these moments of wonder come too rarely throughout.
Cast-wise Charlie Theron is wasted yet again as Cipher, spending most of the movie stuck in a glass box and all of it trapped in a terrible haircut, though at least drops a genuinely hilarious Star Wars-related one-liner. But Cipher’s really the secondary villain, with the hilariously well-cast John Cena taking the main baddie role as Dom’s unruly super-spy brother Jakob.
Despite Cena’s obvious screen presence, the script gives him very little to work with, and he really just plays the part like Heel John Cena rather than a distinct entity unto himself. It doesn’t help at all that he’s in league with a snoozily generic, ambiguously accented tertiary antagonist, Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen).
Even with a clear attempt to bring back as many cast members as possible – Jordana Brewster, Lucas Black, Bow Wow, Jason Tobin, and Helen Mirren (who actually drives this time) all show up at various points – the void left by Hobbs and Shaw’s absence is unmistakable, because once you plug such a supercharged combination into a movie franchise, taking it out is always going to leave things feeling a little dim.
The silliness of the action jarringly clashes with the strangely self-serious grimness of the film’s investigative elements – particularly those pertaining to Dom’s past – ensuring this feels disconcertingly similar to the fourth film in places, and is certainly the series’ most tepid offering overall since that one.
The goofy thrall of the better movies just isn’t here, and while the exceptionally well-crafted action carries enough of the load to ensure F9 is at least a passably entertaining tentpole flick to welcome audiences back to the cinema, it only just scrapes a passing grade.
The Fast and the Furious series reaches a critical mass of stupidity – for now – with F9, where every amusingly logic-averse set-piece is matched by an avalanche of lazy, convoluted storytelling.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Click below to continue on to the next page…