‘F9’ Review: Lotta Engine Revving, Few Fumes Emitted

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F9

Rated PG-13, 2 hours 25 minutes

Directed by: Justin Lin

Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, John Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron

If seeing two wise-cracking dudes in bright yellow scuba suits rocketing into outer space in a Pontiac Fiero doesn’t sound the least bit appealing, then you’re probably not a fan of the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise. The series shifts into overdrive in director Justin Lin’s F9, totally delivering on the patented and beloved hijinks. Bombastic, brazen and bold, the supercharged stunts and ambitious action mix with combustible soap opera dramatics centered on brotherhood and betrayal. This cacophony of car-crunching mayhem is a grandiose, wild ride.  

Many years ago, before Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) ever met the friends he calls “family,” he belonged to a blood-related one of his own. Young Dom (Vinnie Bennett) and his younger brother Jakob (Finn Cole) suffered greatly after the unexpected death of their race-car driving father. The consequences landed Dom in jail, Jacob without structure and the Toretto family fractured. That cavernous divide has carried over into their adulthood, both estranged and too prideful for apologies. But fate has an impending reunion planned.

When Mr. Nobody’s (Kurt Russell) plane carrying adversary Cipher (Charlize Theron) is downed in heavily-guarded military turf, Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson, the film’s MVP) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) come calling, asking for Dom’s help. Dom, at first reticent to answer the call, is then forced out of his peaceful retirement on a farm with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and small son Brian. However, what’s supposed to be a simple mission turns into something far greater. His now-grown, smart and cunning brother Jakob (John Cena) is behind a nefarious, power-mad scheme that involves weaponizing the world’s technology and the gang’s long-standing rival. It’s clear Dom needs more manpower, so little sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and once-thought-dead pal Han (Sung Kang) come along for the ride.

John Cena and Charlize Theron in F9. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

There’s a sense of glee gained from the heavily foreshadowed, pat philosophical platitudes infused into the picture’s thematic commentary about being the bigger – not stronger – person. When saccharine, schmaltzy sentiments pervade (and boy do they whenever Dom ponders fatherhood and his romance with Letty), it’s equally as gutsy as the bulked-up action set pieces. Quieter moments like Dom’s multiple flashbacks and the explanation of Han’s whereabouts are sufficiently balanced with action sequences like the street pursuit in London or the climactic armadillo-armored big rig. Levity is handled better in this chapter. Roman’s riffs, recapping the crazy stuff that’s happened in the past films with comical amounts of indignation and incredulity, are a hoot.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating is the deeper intelligence mixed into the ridiculousness. A magnet motif is woven throughout this film’s fabric, from their use within the heists, airlifting muscle cars from cliff jumps or prying cars off parallel streets, but also the concept of magnets themselves, repelling and attracting human forces. Those principles arise within the straight-faced seriousness of the brothers’ conflict, the gang’s long-standing feud with antagonist Cipher and, on the positive side, the FAST family’s invincible, strong bond.

Yet there are a few absent elements. Unlike other fan-favorite installments of the franchise, there’s surprisingly little homoerotic flexing, especially given the two buff leads. It’s a bummer they’re playing brothers and not friends-turned-foes. There’s a particular lack of it between Jakob and his wimpy, wealthy financier Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen). Even the war of the wits betwixt Jakob and Cipher fizzles out the second they part ways, which happens often enough to be notable. There’s assured amusement to be had stifling giggles at the sheer audacity of screenwriters Lin and Daniel Casey assigning two meatheads sudsy Shakespearean-style drama. And while Diesel and Cena are terrifically nimble in their capabilities, the material is missing maximum poignancy and power. 

While it’s not the best film in the ever-growing saga, and tends to be a little unwieldy in the second act, this winning entry has a lot of gumption and spirited drive. It’ll make you forget your troubles for a few hours as only this franchise can do. There’s assuredly plenty of gas left in the tank.  

Grade: B-

F9 opens in US theaters on June 25.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.