I get it. After eight installments of souped-up cars zooming (in the old sense) across the screen, the stakes are very high in F9: THE FAST SAGA, a franchise that is dedicated to finding new ways to crash, crumple, and otherwise decimate automobiles. And so including a Pontiac Fiero tooling around in space should not be a surprise. Actually, it was inevitable as the constant harping on how important family is for Dom and his crew.
As we pick up the saga of a street gang that long ago left logic firmly in its rear-view mirror, Dom (Vin Diesel) is living a bucolic life in the hinterlands. He may spend his days teaching son Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holtane) how to repair a tractor, but Dom’s suitably weathered barn holds a panic room and an impressive weapons cache. Which is to say that when the old gang comes calling with a super secret government mission, he and wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are ready to answer the call.
What’s it all about? Well, who cares? The point is moving cars as quickly as possible through the most improbable obstacles , including a tropical rainforest and the windy narrow streets of Edinburgh. The story hops across continents as nimbly as Dom negotiates the ci-mentioned terrains as Letty looks on with the too-cool-for-school attitude that conveys her undying devotion to him.
In addition, we are gifted with a backstory for Dom and his brother Jakob (John Cena), aka The Useless One. That was before Dom blamed him for the death of their father during a race in which his car didn’t just burst into flames or spin through the air dozens of times, but rather did both because this is Fast and Furious and if it’s not spectacular, it’s not worth doing. The estrangement was complete until Jakob shows up to throw a wrench into this latest mission.
The testy reunion also engenders a resurrection, a return of the nebulous government agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), of the ice goddess of evil Cipher (Charlize Theron rocking a bowl cut the way mere mortals can’t), and Helen Mirren, all necessitated because it makes for more too-cool-for-school cinema as people stare each other down with utter contempt or, with virtually the same expression, get as verklempt as being so cool allows. It should be noted that Mirren elevates any material in which she finds herself, and here, sailing through London streets in a stolen car wearing stolen emeralds and being motherly to Dom, she is easily the best thing going. She’s so good, that after she drops Dom off at a chi-chi party hosted by the uber-rich German-accented villain with Daddy issues (cox-combed Thue Ersted Rasmussen), you can’t help but wish that the camera had followed her instead of Dom. Her story may have been just as predictable, but no one else has the same wicked sense of cool elan.
Back to story as written. The ladies (Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster as Dom’s sister) go to Tokyo. the others go to the Caspian Sea. Then to London. Then to Cologne because why not? As the conflagrations continue, there is time to wonder if perhaps Dom isn’t some sort of physics savant. Is he concealing an advanced degree from some rarified institution of higher learning, or is his ability to calculate the exact trajectory and torque of objects spinning in space as natural to him as falling off a log is to the rest of us? There is a promise of a 10th installment, and perhaps that’s a subplot under consideration.
The thing is, Diesel is very watchable. Sure, he approaches each moment as though he were about to deliver the most famous soliloquy from Hamlet, but he has the courage of his convictions, and it is a counterintuitive juxtaposition to the mayhem that somehow works in context. If you are going to sell something this silly, make sure that the lead is taking it very, very seriously. For those who enjoy the daredevil action without consequences celebrated here, it adds the necessary gloss of gravitas that it hasn’t actually earned by hamstringing police cars attempting to restore order, or clipping the doors (and more) off cars whose drivers’ only sin is being in the crew’s way.
As for the comic relief, the which even Shakespeare used in his darkest tragedies, we have xxx and Roman (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Tyrese Gibson) wondering aloud how it is that they’ve been doing impossible, and impossibly dangerous, things for years and yet there is nary a scar on either of them. Or anyone else. This unexpected self-awareness in the script is a tacit wink and nod to an audience who may have been wondering the same things.
FAST AND FURIOUS 9 represents a compete surrender to willful, ebulliently gleeful inanity. By the time we get to the car in space, it begs the question of whether or not the flick is inviting to us to laugh >with< or >at< it. Take your pick.