Review of “F9: The Fast Saga”

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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Review of “Dolittle”

Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), the doctor that talks to animals, has exiled himself in his compound since the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak). He’s still surrounded by the animals he rescued with Lily, including a cowardly gorilla named Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), a constantly cold polar bear named Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a duck with an artificial leg named Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a glasses-wearing dog named Jip (voiced by Tom Holland) and leading them all is a headstrong macaw named Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson). Dolittle’s isolation is broken when a teenager named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) shows up with an injured squirrel. The squirrel was accidently shot when Tommy was out hunting with his uncle and cousin. Tommy bundles up the squirrel and Poly guides him to Dolittle’s. Dolittle performs surgery on the squirrel, named Kevin (voiced by Craig Robinson), and he survives but swears revenge on Tommy. Also arriving at the mansion is Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), Queen Victoria’s niece. She tells Dolittle the Queen is ill and needs his attention immediately. Reluctant, Dolittle initially refuses to leave the compound, but the animal’s rebel and force him to go. When Dolittle arrives, he sees an old friend from medical school, Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) is treating the Queen. Mudfly is dubious of Dolittle’s methods and animals and is jealous of his talents. Also on hand is Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent), representing Parliament. Using Jip’s sensitive nose, Dolittle figures out the Queen has been poisoned by drinking tea laced with the poisonous plant Deadly Nightshade. The only cure is a rare fruit that grows on only one tree, located on an island that doesn’t appear on any map. If the cure isn’t administered soon, the Queen with die, so Dolittle, several of his animal friends and Tommy, who has appointed himself Dolittle’s apprentice, set off on a dangerous journey across treacherous seas, looking for an island that may not exist and encounter animal friends and human foes from his past.

Watching “Dolittle,” I kept waiting for the moment the film completely falls apart. With mostly negative reviews and a Rotten Tomatoes score in the teens, I assumed the movie would begin showing us characters late in the third act we hadn’t seen before or would start espousing Nazi propaganda. None of that happened. Sure, its muddled, messy and has the pacing of a child fed only sugar and crack, but “Dolittle” is an enjoyable catastrophe.

“Catastrophe” is too strong a word, but there are things about the film that don’t make a great deal of sense. For instance, there are phrases said by the animals that didn’t exist at the time, like “Code Red.” Access to an unconscious Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is far too easy. While the guards act like they are going to try to stop a gorilla, ostrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) and polar bear from being near the fallen queen, they don’t fire their guns or draw their swords. It appears anyone in nice clothes and with a friendly face could walk into the palace. I realize these issues, and more are due to the comical and fantasy aspects of the story and must be forgiven to some extent, however what I have a harder time wrapping my head around is Robert Downey Jr.’s accent.

Why did he choose to sound like a male version of Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire? And why was that choice apparently made after principle photography as his voice appears to have been dubbed for the majority of the film? Speaking in low whispers, as if telling a secret to someone that isn’t there, Downey is difficult to understand through the film, and his dialog is frequently repeated or expanded upon by an animal or human costar. It’s one of many odd choices by Downey for a character that’s been portrayed in movies by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy.

Like his choices in the “Sherlock Holmes” films, Dolittle is a person beset by quirks and twitches. He’s antisocial, preferring to live in a world of his own making. He is a creature of habit that hates to have his routine disrupted. Dolittle is protecting himself from pain caused by people leaving him, so he’s banished people from his life. I suppose that’s okay for someone that is surrounded by a menagerie of friendly animals with whom he can converse, but the animals in “Dolittle” are just furrier versions of people in their behaviors and personalities. Since they depend on the doctor for care and food, these analogs will never leave him and, in my opinion, that’s cheating the only redeeming factor of this Dolittle. He misses his wife with such a deep grief he cannot force himself back into the world. If he had also pushed all the animals away, then I might be a bit more sympathetic to the character, but he has replaced people with talking animals.

It sounds like I didn’t enjoy the film at all, and yet I did. Once you get used to Dolittle’s quirks and other oddities, you are swept up in the frenetic pacing of the film that hardly allows the audience to absorb one strange event before the next begins. From the introduction of Dolittle and his zoo of a house, to his arrival at the palace and the introduction of the villain, to the start of the voyage, “Dolittle” doesn’t slow down. That’s works in the film’s favor as the audience doesn’t have time to ponder the weird events as they unfold.

The CGI animals are obviously CGI. Sometimes they look more digital than others and the sight lines between the human and animal characters don’t quite line up. Despite this, it never bothered me. Perhaps it was the voice work by a wide and diverse cast that made the second-rate effects more palatable. Emma Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Holland, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer and John Cena all turn in enjoyable performances as a variety of animals. Most of them are far more interesting than any of the humans.

Michael Sheen had to pick splinters out of his teeth with all the scenery he chews as the villain Dr. Mudfly. His evil ark is easy to predict as soon as his character is shown picking leeches out of a jar to apply to Queen Victoria to treat her mysterious illness. He even has a twirlable mustache which, for some reason, he doesn’t twirl. That seems like a missed opportunity for such an obvious bad guy.

Antonio Banderas is perhaps the oddest casting for Rassouli, King of the Pirates. While Banderas, nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in “Pain and Glory,” gives it his all, the role is underwritten and a throw-away character that solves a problem late in the second act. There’s an effort to make Rassouli something bigger by giving he and Dolittle a past connection, but that only serves to make the meaninglessness more obvious. Still, Banderas does his best with a role that probably took only a couple of days to shoot.

“Dolittle” is rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language. There are a couple of scenes of mild violence including a brief battle with the Queen’s guards, cannon fire that sinks a ship, an explosion in an arms cache, some leaps and falls that might be considered dangerous and a diver nearly lost in the sea. None of it should be stressful to even young children. The rude humor consists of fart jokes. Bad language is mild and widely scattered.

The humor in “Dolittle” is what actually won me. While it is basic prat falls and more than a few fart jokes, it works as a light diversion for a world that’s on fire and tearing itself apart. Could it have been better, much, much better? Yes, it should. Robert Downey Jr.’s first film since his final appearance as Iron Man should have been more polished and, maybe more meaningful. Instead, we get a movie about a guy that talks to animals and goes on adventures, that sounds like male Mrs. Doubtfire and whispers and twitches a great deal. It won’t win any awards, except may a Razzie or two, but it also isn’t the least bit offensive and children may love it, while leaving their parents to wish for something more. And yet, I still liked it.

“Dolittle” gets four stars out of five, and may God have mercy on my soul.

This week, I’ll be reviewing “The Gentlemen” for WIMZ.com.

Also opening this week is “The Turning.”

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.