Review: F9 is the drive-in event of the summer

F9 (Justin Lin). 143 minutes. Some subtitles. Now playing at drive-in theatres in the GTA. Rating: NNN

There’s something weirdly perfect about F9 opening exclusively at drive-in theatres, isn’t there? Not only is an outdoor, in-car venue the perfect presentation for the latest chapter in what Universal is now calling the Fast Saga – with a straight face and everything! – but local police will be able to set up speed traps down the way from the exits and make a fortune on tickets.

And here I was worried I wouldn’t have anything new to say about the new one. But hey, I reviewed that Saw spinoff earlier this month, I can find something to say about anything. And as inevitabilities go, F9 – which is actually the 10th film in the series, counting the 2019 spinoff Hobbs & Shaw – is a lot more satisfying and a lot more inventive.

At nearly two and a half hours it’s also the longest film in the series, making room for what feels like half an hour of the Young Toretto Chronicles, showing us how Vin Diesel’s Dominic learned valuable lessons about right, wrong and Family… and setting up the introduction of a new adversary in John Cena’s Jakob, a previously unmentioned Toretto who surfaces now with an elaborate plan to steal and deploy a super-sophisticated technological weapon that weaponizes weapons systems.

Yes, I said “weapon” a lot just then. Still not even close to the number of times Dom says “family” in the back half of this picture. But people would be disappointed if he didn’t, right?

It’s an essential requirement of the Fast & Furious movies to provide fans with more of the things they liked from the last one, at an increasingly bigger and louder scale. All franchises do this, of course, but the nature of this one – which started out as a car-based ripoff of Point Break, and has morphed over 20 years into a car-based ripoff of Mission: Impossible movies, with Diesel’s Dom and his ragtag, Corona-fuelled pals racing around the globe on super-secret missions and saving the world from supervillains on a regular basis.

The whole thing is preposterous, but the best Fast movies know it, abandoning any connection to coherent physical reality for balletic, impossible action scenes where cars leap between skyscrapers, swing across bridges, catch people in mid-air and even take the story where no Toretto has gone before.

Justin Lin, who gave the Fast movies kineticism with 2006’s underrated Tokyo Drift, stayed with the series through chapters 4, 5 and 6 and returns now, after James Wan’s Furious Seven and F. Gary Gray’s The Fate Of The Furious, to show us what genuinely heedless mayhem really looks like. The innovations this time around? Magnets – really big ones – and, yes, rocket fuel.

We can talk about what doesn’t work. Charlize Theron, introduced as the villain of the last movie and back again because this series simply refuses to let people go, has nothing to do but sit in a plastic prison cell and annoy people. There’s not enough of Helen Mirren’s Queenie, who turns up to drive around London with Diesel for one scene. Sung Kang returns as Han, his death once again retconned by the master narrative, and the character once again gets shoved aside for more time with the brooding, conflicted Dom. And of course he does – Diesel’s the producer as well as the star of these movies – but it just reminds us how much more potential there is in almost every one of the other characters, and how frustrating it is that the series doesn’t see it.

Sure, Chris Bridges’s Tej and Tyrese Gibson’s Roman get a fun existential gag this time around where they hang a lantern (or three) on their impossible missions and inexplicable survival rate, but Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty and Jordana Brewster’s returning Mia get almost no time to discuss the changes they’ve experienced – which, considering Mia’s also dealing with the return of a long-lost brother, feels like a missed opportunity.

Everyone gets their driving hours in, though, which is all anyone really wants from a Fast & Furious movie – even tech whiz Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and if you’re realizing we’ve never seen her do that before, that’s the one genuine surprise in this picture, setting up a mid-movie chase around (and above) Edinburgh that’s pure, delightful chaos.

The climactic chase, in Tbilisi, is twice as long and nearly as inventive – a reminder that however good a job Lin and Gray did of keeping the series going, it really needs Lin behind the wheel. He just knows the road best.


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