“Things change,” growls Vin Diesel’s Dom Torretto during the opening moments of this long-awaited, nitro-fuelled Fast and Furious 9. Technically, he’s referring to the serene life he and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have reluctantly embraced in order to raise their young son, Brian. But he could be talking about the newly minted ‘Fast Saga’ itself, which has run the gamut from down-and-dirty street racer, through globetrotting heist movie, to a mongrel genre it has now improbably pioneered – the bombastic, melodramatic, ensemble gearhead spy thriller.
Of course, this scarcely scratches the surface of everything going on in the near two-and-a-half-hour F9, which marks director Justin Lin’s return to family filmmaking following a two-movie pit-stop. Lin has nothing left to prove after helming cult favorite Tokyo Drift and lauded franchise reinvention Fast 5, but this ninth entry exposes the fact that the series has almost nowhere left to go. Even by F&F’s riotously OTT standards, it’s a film that puts pedal to the metal and refuses to let up, for better and worse.
Despite their newfound responsibility, it isn’t long before Dom and Letty are back on the road. Here the sci-fi super-weapon they’re uniquely equipped to prevent falling into the wrong hands is Ares – a device sought by none other than Dom’s exiled brother turned granite-chiseled black-ops badass Jakob (John Cena). Funded by billionaire brat Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and aided by Charlize Theron’s hacker-psycho Cipher in an enemy-of-my-enemy alliance, Jakob finds Dom’s crew to be a relentless thorn in his side from the Caspian Sea to Tbilisi, with an extended layover on familiar stomping ground in the UK.
Four years ago, Fast and Furious 8 laid bare just how easy it is to mishandle the series’ precision-engineered balance between knowing, physics-flaunting action and earnestly overwrought melodrama. It managed to cram into the same film the execution of a mother in front of her baby and The Rock re-directing a torpedo with his bare hands. Here, Lin expertly course corrects a series careening off the rails by counterintuitively kicking everything up a gear. Barely 15 minutes in, Dom’s crew are racing over landmines at 80mph while being pursued by the trigger-happy army of a nondescript Central American nation. Somehow things only escalate from there, building to the gleefully chaotic deployment of electromagnets for a standout sequence that liberally riffs on Fast 5’s glorious safe heist.
As for the familial drama that drives so much of the action, Fast and Furious 9 raises the stakes by introducing a secret flesh-and-blood Torretto. Jakob’s sudden appearance may be a retcon too far, even for a series that pulled the amnesia card years ago. But the use of extensive flashbacks to a formative event in Dom and Jakob’s early lives (with the younger Torrettos played ably by Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole, respectively) lays the groundwork effectively, establishing an irreparable rivalry between the pair while giving us a rare glimpse into the events that made Dom a mechanical messiah.
While never particularly deep, on a purely emotional level it works, every greeting-card platitude delivered with such street-sage solemnity that even if you don’t believe it, you buy that the characters do. It’s all assuredly familiar, but the film also manages to usher in some welcome changes. More central roles for Letty and Jordana Brewster’s Mia, for example, are long overdue as the pair jet off on a mission to Tokyo together. Meanwhile, those flashbacks allow Lin to smuggle gritty, no-frills street races back into a series that left them in the rearview mirror years ago.
But Lin’s iron grip on the wheel starts to slip when he plays to the crowd. A running joke in which Tyrese Gibson’s Roman believes himself invincible following countless near-death experiences skirts so close to smug fourth-wall-breaking territory it starts to feel a hair’s breadth away from Deadpool showing up. A silly late-film set-piece involving a Pontiac Fiero strapped to a rocket gives vocal fans exactly what they want, while enthusiastically dispensing with the infinitesimal amount of credulity the series was clinging onto. And as for the much-hyped return of Han Seoul-Oh... while more Sung Kang is always welcome, his return is dispiritingly underpowered. Certainly, anyone looking for #JusticeForHan has a wait ahead of them.
Over a year after it was originally set to debut, Fast and Furious 9 has the auspicious virtue of being the first full-fledged blockbuster to play exclusively in cinemas since Tenet. It’s not the best film you’ll see this year – it isn’t even the best Fast film directed by Justin Lin featuring a former WWE superstar as the antagonist - but it’s unlikely anything else will deliver quite as much bang for your buck, or more perfectly exemplify big-screen spectacle. It’s one family reunion you won’t want to skip.
Fast and Furious 9 is in cinemas from June 24. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies coming our way.