Ah, summer! That time of year when thoughts turn to enjoying bright, hot sunny days by the pool, at the lakeshore and on the beach. That’s what most people look forward to, anyway. On the other hand, I see summer as the time when movie studios bring out their big guns, their heavy hitters, the releases that are guaranteed (they hope) to bring audiences out en masse to watch the latest action, comedy, sci-fi blockbuster. Of course, last summer was a washout with a deadly virus ripping through the population and spread via airborne transmission. Being closed up in a large room with recirculated air was a perfect contamination storm, leading all the major movies to be delayed or receiving simultaneous limited theatrical releases and streaming platform premieres. Despite the vaccines and lessening of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Warner Brothers is still doing both theaters and their HBO Max streaming service through the end of the year. Assuming more people become fully vaccinated (get you shot/shots if you can) and a variant doesn’t become immune to the vaccine, maybe next summer will be more normal than this one. However, the one thing many people were counting on has finally occurred: The latest “Fast and Furious” movie has opened. Is “F9: The Fast Sage” worth heading out in the hot summer sun for?
Dom and Letty (Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez) and Dom’s son Brian are living a quiet life on a farm when they received an unannounced visit from Tej, Roman and Ramsey (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson and Nathalie Emmanuel). The trio is going on a mission to Montecito to recover their covert boss, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) whose plane was downed in the jungle by rogue agents as he transported a captured Cipher (Charlize Theron) to prison. Also, on board the plane is part of a gadget named Ares that could put any device that runs on code under a hacker’s control. During the operation, the team is attacked by a paramilitary outfit led by Dom’s younger brother Jakob (John Cena). Jakob and Dom have bad blood going back decades to the death of their father Jack (J.D. Pardo) during a stock car racing crash. Jakob is working for Otto (Ersted Rasmussen), the son of a European leader and billionaire, and Cipher is helping them against her will. Cipher finds the location of the other half of Ares, but it still needs a key to unlock and use it. That key is under the protection of Han Lue (Sung Kang) who was thought to have died in a car crash and explosion years earlier caused by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Dom and the crew must stop Jakob from getting his hands on the other half of Ares and the key and stop him from using the device to take over every nuclear arsenal in the world.
That is one fully packed plot recap, and it doesn’t cover half of it. There’s lots more family intrigue, spy shenanigans and electromagnetic-augmented car chases (yeah, I said “electromagnetic-augmented”) I didn’t have room for. It’s a jammed full action movie that’s in a big hurry to get somewhere but doesn’t. It’s a two-hour, 25-minute preview for “F10, Part 1” and “F10, Part 2.” It wants the audience to buy in fully with the idea of Dom’s extended family working together as a team and how they are all willing to sacrifice the individual to save the whole. In “Star Trek” terms, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.” While there are a few examples of that sacrifice, it doesn’t have the emotional punch director Justin Lin was probably going for. The attempts to make us feel fear and pity for the crew are always short-circuited by the knowledge that none of the central team is in any real danger of dying. No matter how bad the car crash, plane crash, explosion, fight, building collapse, fist fight or whatever, no one is in real peril. Their contracts won’t allow it.
Listening to Vin Diesel growl out his dialog is becoming a chore. While Diesel says very little, letting his driving and fighting do most of the talking, when he does speak, it’s barely understandable. What he’s given to say may be as much to blame with hollow sentiments about family and loyalty. His emotional range isn’t much better. Running the gamut of mildly bemused to mildly annoyed with occasional peaks of rage, Diesel has about as much acting chops as, well, a lamb chop. However, one must give Diesel credit for stumbling into a role that matches his abilities. Much like the Kardashians are famous for being famous (and the occasional “leaked” porn tape), Diesel has made a fortune from the “Fast” franchise and become a producer on many of his own films, as well as the voice of the Marvel character Groot. We should all be so lucky as to find what we are marginally average at and from it make a fortune.
The biggest thing holding back the “Fast” franchise (aside from logic) is a character that can’t be there but is always hovering in the background: the late Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner. Walker’s death in 2013 during a break in the filming of “Furious 7” led to a delay in the that film, rewrites and using old footage and Walker’s two brothers with digital effects to finish his shots. Walker’s Brian is mentioned several times in “F9” with a hint he might show up at a family gathering. It might be best for this franchise if Brian is allowed to die, as the frequent mentions and fake outs he’s going to appear is only a cheap ploy to play on the sympathy of the audience and remind everyone that Walker is gone. Enough is enough. Fold the character’s death into the plot (Cipher tracked him down and had him killed or something like that) and let the audience and the franchise say goodbye in a way that’s meaningful.
There’s plenty more I could complain about: The way the magnet weapon attracts and repels items after the vehicle in which it’s mounted has already passed, the explosions of mines and missiles that cause no damage to the vehicles they explode under, the sheer luck of a rope or wire from an old bridge catching a car’s wheel just right, not ripping out the suspension and the rope not breaking, and don’t get me started on a car in space. Since “Fast 5,” logic and physics hasn’t been very important to the makers of the franchise. Normally, I wouldn’t care as much, but there’s something about the shallowness and cynical feeling of this film that makes its logical flaws stick out that much more. This may be one of the “Fast” franchises most ambitious films, but it’s also one of its most bland.
“F9: The Fast Saga” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language. There are numerous scenes of shooting where no one gets hit except the bad guys. Crowds of bystanders are often in the line of fire during these shootouts, but we never see if anyone is injured or killed. There are numerous fist fights, some occurring on or in moving vehicles. Some characters are hit by cars, but we never see the aftermath. There is a race car crash that results in a fire and presumed death. Foul language is scattered and mild.
Despite my criticisms of “F9,” I don’t hate the film. It lacks the fire and excitement of previous episodes that all the car stunts in the universe can’t generate. While it is doing big business at the box office, both in its opening weekend in North America and at theaters around the world, audiences may be flocking to see it out of a desire for normalcy and a return to the simple pleasures of life taken away by coronavirus. I cannot blame them, and I feel the same way, but I believe “F9” is a lesser chapter in “The Fast Saga,” and I hope the final two films in the main franchise can return the magic that’s missing.
“F9: The Fast Saga” gets 2.5 stars out of five.
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