F9: a computer key whose purpose I cannot, off the top of my head, properly justify or describe — and also a movie which, for everything that’s genuinely fun about it, suffers much the same fate. It’s a Fast & Furious movie, so, at minimum, you know what you’re going to get — to a point. That’s no small feat: There’s much to be said for the creature comforts of franchise familiarity. If you’re already in love with this crew of hyperskilled riff-raff, headed by an increasingly Stallone-esque Vin Diesel, the movie plays into that love. If you accept that the central gambit and compromising folly of a nine-movie (and counting) action franchise is that the only reasonable option at this point is more — more ridiculousness, more cameos and callbacks, more self-awareness, more backstory worthy of the decade-plus-long soap opera this series has essentially become — F9 will go down especially easy. That’s all most of us want out of these movies in the first place. And with it landing back in theaters after a year-plus of theatrical crisis, F9 is basically set up to hit it out of the park for anyone wise enough to keep their expectations humble.
You could, of course, disagree with studio logic. You could say: Nine movies in, we can trim the fat. We know these people. We know it’s a franchise all about family; many of us have probably played the drinking games — a shot for every time someone says family, uses a synonym for family, alludes to even having a family — to prove it (and were hospitalized, accordingly). London, Tbilisi, Montequinto, Cologne: The location porn, with mandated accompanying riffs in the music to guide us through those swooping, sky-high establishing shots over skylines and mountaintops, is also a dependable pleasure. In sum: We know how it works.
But we also know that, at its highest highs, the announcement of a new entry in the Fast franchise is like hearing the Mister Softee jingle a few blocks over and knowing it’ll be at your house in the time it takes to beg your parents for spare dollar bills. The promise is a treat. Has it always paid off? Well, no… But the devilishly clever trick at the heart of this franchise was, after all, to take the money shot of most any other movie of this stripe — the chase scene — and make it the entire movie, a slick inverse on the genre’s great pleasures: all climax, (almost) all the time, with some charismatic side-hustling to the tune of comic relief and telenovela-lite drama stitching it together.
On that basic front, with that format in mind, even if the promised action in F9 could benefit from a scalpel in the editing room, and less repetition of the same establishing gags, and even as those gags feel increasingly borrowed from the elsewhere, the movie hits at least half of the right marks. F9 throws everything it can think of our way. Jungle chases, land mines, utter havoc wreaked on the streets of London — the favela chase redux, but on cobblestone streets — multiple layers of villain holding the strings to it all, flashbacks to an explanatory past, and the pure, unlikely delight of seeing John Cena play the beta to Diesel’s alpha.
But when you make the money shot the main attraction for four, then five, then nine movies, you run into a problem with the stuff stitching it together. F9 gets bogged down. Way, way down. It becomes a lot of movies at once. Some fly, some don’t, but the sum effect is that it winds up spinning its wheels, its hyperkinetic delights (all I’ll say is: magnets) awash in too many strands of background drama. Entire scenes of comic relief, mostly resting on the shoulders of Chris Bridges and Tyrese Gibson, feel detached from what actually matters to the story — as if what we’re watching are actually the results of contractual negotiations about screen time, populated by going-nowhere jokes, that don’t even try to hide the strings. (Compare these dull-witted scenes to the seamless product placement: You know it isn’t arbitrary that you’re seeing bottles of Corona being brandished so shamelessly, but the Fast franchise’s characters are so obviously Corona drinkers that it doesn’t feel strange.)
The plot? Oh, there’s a plot alright. Multiple blasts from the past (one fairly literal); a plan for world domination using technology that no one tries to overly explain because it’s not really the point; the gang getting back together again; the gang and the world-dominators-to-be duking it out on vehicles. You’ve got a strand of this movie — for my money, the best strand of the entire affair — in which Charlize Theron, reprising her role as the cyberterrorist Cipher, gives us her best Hannibal Lecter, holding mens’ balls in a vice grip from within a glass box, from which she properly reads everyone in sight for dirt (people: she’s seen your report cards), advancing the plot through obvious manipulation but stripped of all needless exposition. She’s just here, making eunuchs of everyone in sight with psychotic relish, and yet somehow the plot can’t move forward without her.
Compare that to some of the rest of the soap opera this movie has in store and — well. Some of it works. The Torretto family history that frames the movie, with a quite convincing Vinnie Bennett as a young Dom, isn’t so bad; it sets up a neat, primal, and efficient central drama on which the movie could happily have coasted. Does it all, ultimately, come down to two men — brothers — finally hugging each other? Yes! Is that ridiculous? Absolutely — and it’s the part that works. F9 isn’t good at being so judicious, however. Other resurrections of the past must ensue. Other dramas, other secrets. We’re nine movies in, and we’ve reached the point where the wheels are spinning off the axes, we’re choking on the fumes of burnt rubber, we’re watching things get a little desperate. I will never, not once, complain about seeing Michelle Rodriguez 1) in a movie; 2) fighting in a movie; 3) fighting on a motorcycle in a movie. Suffice it to say F9 could have used more of that, less of the rest.
On the one hand, it’s become an annoying trend in our conversations about pop art for moves that are willfully, straightforwardly bad to get immediately reclaimed as campy (to say nothing of our constant elision of the difference between camp and kitsch). But on the other hand, F9 reaches so far beyond itself, sticks its hand in so many pots, that a Fast 9 in Outer Space joke becomes not only plausible but… literal. That’s legitimate camp territory, and the movie tries to make fun of itself, there and elsewhere, by signaling self-awareness. But do we need all these signals? Cut to the chase — literally. By the end of F9 I was intermittently entertained, but mostly wary. There’s, what, two more of these coming? And already we’ve stretched it all so thin, thrown every strand of pasta in the pot against the wall. For a movie that manages, still, to occasionally be a good time, that’s not a good sign. Not at all.