Fast and Furious 9: Vin Diesel, John Cena talk outer space, #JusticeForHan, and fraternal fireworks

Fast and Furious 9
(Image credit: Universal)

GamesRadar+ and Total Film are celebrating the biggest new releases as we head back to the cinema! This week: Fast and Furious 9. The Fast films have always had family at their heart, but the series is stepping up a gear by putting Dominic Toretto head to head with his most dangerous adversary to date: his own brother. We speak to Vin Diesel, John Cena, and director Justin Lin.

It’s only been five seconds and Vin Diesel has already dropped the F-word. This should come as a surprise to no one; after all, he’s talking to Total Film about Fast and Furious 9 – the latest chapter in the full-throttle Fast Saga, and more than ever before family (what F-word did you think we meant?) is at the forefront of Diesel’s mind.

“The theme that we’ve been playing with up until this point has been the family that you create with people from all walks of life, the family that is not blood,” says Diesel with the sage-like sincerity of Dom Toretto himself. This may be a series that features skydiving supercars, submarine battles and, in Fast 9’s case ‘magnet planes’, but Diesel knows that the key to keeping audiences hooked is to make them care. “What makes the story of Fast 9 so fascinating is how that altruistic concept could neglect the family defined by blood. That’s where this story goes.” 

There’s no use beating around the bush – or should that be skidding around the race course? – as, as revealed in the first trailer, Fast & Furious 9 isn’t just dropping a bombshell on the Fast Saga, it’s detonating a thermonuclear device: Dom has a hitherto unmentioned baby brother, Jakob, and with no love lost between the Toretto bros over their, let’s say ‘complicated’, family history, Dom’s due a reckoning.

“Helen Mirren has a great line in the film where she articulates that there’s nothing stronger than family, but at the same time, there’s nothing more dangerous,” Diesel points out. “That’s what makes Jakob so formidable.” As played by John Cena, Jakob Toretto isn’t just a threat to the Fast family because he’s Dom’s flesh and blood. Jakob’s years in exile – the precise reasons for which are a closely guarded secret, but will be fully explored in the film – have given him the time and drive to forge himself into a one-man Fast army.

John Cena and Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 9

(Image credit: Universal)

“Jakob is a bit of a loner,” Cena tells Total Film in his first official interview about the game-changing role. “In being a bit of a loner, he has had to craft all the skills that it takes. He’s skilled in performance driving, he’s skilled in combat, he’s skilled in espionage and covert tactics. You see how the Fast family operates. Each member has a distinct set of skills, and that’s why they can make the impossible, possible. Jakob possesses all those skills, which makes him an insurmountable threat.”

The news of Jakob’s existence came as a shock to Cena as well, after first meeting Diesel in April 2019 with no idea what part he was being considered for. “It was only after that meeting that I got to read the material,” says Cena, who was floored by what he read. “It was extremely impactful. It melted my brain to read it. This is a huge, huge deal, and I didn’t take it lightly.”

Casting Jakob was a similarly huge deal for Diesel, who’s coming up on 20 years behind the wheel of Dom’s Dodge Charger, starting with 2001’s The Fast and the Furious. “It was, as you can imagine, a very, very harrowing thought: ‘who could be the brother of Dom Toretto?’” says Diesel, who invited Cena to his very own Fast sanctuary in California. “He had come to a Dom shrine, that I created to get into the spirit of the character. The second I saw him, I felt like Pablo [Diesel’s nickname for Paul Walker] had sent him to me to play the character. Kind of crazy, but that’s the truth.”

The fate of the furious

Vin Diesel and John Cena in Fast & Furious 9

(Image credit: Universal)

The theme that we’ve been playing with up until this point has been the family that you create with people from all walks of life

Vin Diesel

For returning director Justin Lin – who previously helmed Fasts three through six, and turbo-charged the series with Fast 5 – the idea of family, for once, meaning flesh and blood was one of two key ideas that motivated his return to the series (the second – a highly anticipated serving of justice – we’ll come to later). “As an immigrant to the US, all my friends growing up are now uncles and aunts to my son,” says the Taipei-born filmmaker. “That was very influential in building out Fast, and a sense of family that’s not traditional. That reflects my life. At the same time, blood just runs deeper. It felt like: ‘If everybody associates Fast with family in the way that we’ve explored, then there’s very fertile ground for exploring blood and history.’”

History and Diesel’s favorite Instagram hashtag, #Fatherhood, run through Fast 9 like a NOS injection on the home straight. While everyone is staying tight-lipped, Diesel hints we may revisit the Toretto family home to witness precisely what pushes Jakob and Dom apart, and how the death of their father drives a wedge between them. “It was an opportunity to go back to one of our earliest memories of the character,” elaborates Diesel. Should memory not serve, in The Fast And The Furious Dom recalls how his father – a professional stock car driver who helped build the 1970 Dodge Charger R/T – died after being run off the track at 120mph. “It gave you an understanding of how it shaped Dom, and certainly how, in some ways, it’s the origin story of Dom.” 

Dom’s daddy issues will also be mirrored in the present, not simply because Jakob’s return opens old wounds, but because Dom himself is a dad to baby Brian – a responsibility he’s embraced wholeheartedly, retiring to the countryside to raise his son with Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty. “Letty was somehow sensing that a life of seclusion was not a full life at all,” Rodriguez explains of her character’s reluctance to settle down – a source of some conflict between Letty and Dom before the pair are called into action by Jakob’s sudden arrival on the scene. “She knows no other life except for the fast life, and facing the world head on is more natural to her than a life in hiding.”

Letty is back for Fast & Furious 9

(Image credit: Universal)

But the questions about Jakob remain: How? Why? Where? And, most importantly, huh? If Dom – Mr. Family – had a blood brother all along, shouldn’t we know about Jakob by now? “There is a reason why we have not heard of this character,” Lin teases. “It is something that I care greatly about, and I wanted to make sure that it works for us to explore it in the way we do.” Introducing such a major character nine films deep into a 10-film saga may risk jumping the shark in a series that has done everything except literally jump a shark, but that’s always been Lin’s MO when it comes to the Fast films. “The exciting thing about doing a Fast movie is when you have an idea and you’re scared shitless,” Lin chuckles. “That’s a good point to start with.” 

The starting point for Lin, like many involved in the series, was a conversation with Diesel. In 2005, a year prior to the release of Tokyo Drift (which brought Diesel back for a cameo following the Dom-less 2 Fast 2 Furious) Lin laid out his vision for the series – one which would occupy the next eight years of his life. “I remember talking to Vin about what I was hoping to do with the mythology, and it all culminated at 6 for me,” Lin recalls. “It was a tough decision walking away, because it was such a big part of my career. But I wanted to try other things, and that one conversation we had in ’05 ended at 6, so I was fine walking away.”

But to paraphrase Michael Corleone, just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. “I never thought I was going to come back,” says Lin, who put “a lot of projects on hold” to return for Fast 9, not that he regrets his choice. “It does feel like home. It’s been such a unique and special journey for me,” Lin says. “When I started I’d literally just come out of Sundance with my credit card movie. I was in the middle of doing my first real film where people were getting paid when Universal called. Back then, Fast and Furious was in a very different place. We didn’t have Vin or Paul, and they were looking for someone outside the system.”

Keeping it in the family

Justin Lin directs Fast & Furious 9.

Justin Lin directs Fast and Furious 9. (Image credit: Universal)

Alongside Diesel and stalwart writer Chris Morgan (who’s joined by Daniel Casey on 9), Lin is the driving force behind Fast’s changing fortunes. Tokyo Drift is often overlooked but may be the most visually dazzling of all the Fast films; 2009’s Fast & Furious did the important legwork of bringing back key players and winning over gearheads by treating cars as more than go-fast machines; while Fast 5 was nothing short of a renaissance for the series. “I remember having this profound moment,” says Lin, who was shooting Community’s celebrated paintball episode ‘Modern Warfare’ at the time of his epiphany. “I thought: ‘There’s something special here that even James Bond can’t touch.’ James Bond is always the same guy. It was this moment of saying, ‘Let’s embrace growth and ageing and evolution and hopefully maturity.’ 

“So that also then led to tone,” Lin continues. “We could take ourselves seriously, like we did in 4, but we could also have some fun. And it really dovetailed into this idea of a universe, which I was attempting to do at the end of 4, and which we were able to do in 5, which was to bring back a lot of the characters. We felt like, ‘This [is] our family, warts and all. We should embrace everybody. Let’s see everybody grow.’ That was a big turning point for us.”

In the years following Fast 6, Diesel and Universal kept the door open for Lin’s return to the series. But it wasn’t until an eye-opening trip to Cape Town for martial arts series Warrior that Lin’s Fast 9 journey started in earnest. “I was coming back home, and it was a weird trip in that at every airport I had Fast fans come up to talk to me,” Lin says. “They were just sharing their opinions, but I hadn’t even seen 7 or 8 then. It must have triggered something, because a few months after that I woke up with the idea for this next chapter. I called the studio. I called Vin. And we were back on.”

Fast and Furious 9

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Which brings us to Fast 9’s second thermonuclear explosion: as revealed at the end of the first trailer, justice is finally being served. “Han means so much to me because he was a character before Fast & Furious,” says Lin, pointing out a little-known fact: that Han, as played by Sung Kang, is a character in Lin’s 2002 “credit card movie” Better Luck Tomorrow. Appropriately enough, it was at a 15th anniversary Sundance screening of the film at the Egyptian Theatre in LA that Lin first learned about the #JusticeForHan campaign.

“Somebody asked me about Han and [Deckard] Shaw,” says Lin, who in the final moments of Fast 6 revealed that Shaw was responsible for Han’s death in Tokyo. Shaw’s subsequent rehabilitation and acceptance into the family in Fast 8 raised more than a few eyebrows as a result. “I was like: ‘Wait, what? Shaw is at the barbecue in 8?’ [laughs] Really, I was so confused. One of the big reasons to come back was I felt like we needed to correct something.” 

Precisely how Han returns, seemingly from the dead, is another of the film’s closely guarded secrets, though (much) stranger things have happened in the Fast films. “Let’s just say we’re not hiding the fact that a lot of the stuff is crazy!” Rodriguez laughs. It’s Letty who announces Han’s return in the Fast 9 trailer, and she’ll be instrumental in bringing Han back into the fold alongside Jordana Brewster’s Mia Toretto, who has a greatly expanded role in Fast 9. [See boxout, page 60] “In a lot of ways these movies are like the Olympic games. There are a lot of cultures that feel represented by individual characters from the franchise. And Han does that for an entire community.”

A quarter mile at a time...

Fast and Furious 9

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Mia’s involvement also raises the question of Brian’s whereabouts. The character lives on in the Fast universe, despite Paul Walker’s death in 2013. For Diesel, bringing back Han took on another significance in relation to his fallen friend. “We’ve always tried to allow for the return of certain characters. It’s one of the liberties of storytelling,” Diesel says, before a deep breath. “But to be 100 per cent honest, I think real-life circumstances, and the loss of people that you love, allow you to imagine the return of characters that might have passed away on film. I think that’s where that stuff is drawn from.” 

Much has changed in the Fast franchise since Lin was last at the helm. Dragging a house-sized safe around Rio – outlandish at the time – is practically grounded compared to the skyscraper leaping and zombie cars of recent instalments. Spin-off Hobbs & Shaw even tipped the universe into sci-fi with Idris Elba’s genetically augmented Brixton, which came as something of a shock to Lin. “I felt like Angelina Jolie in The Changeling. It’s your kid. It goes away, and it comes back a little different,” the director laughs. With seemingly anything on the table now – including Fast 9’s rope-swinging cars, triple truck flips and magnet planes – will Lin finally answer fan prayers and send the Fast family into space?

Fast and Furious 9

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

I’ve heard chatter about space. What I love about this franchise is if we really put in the time, we can do anything that we want

Justin Lin

“I’ve heard chatter about space. What I love about this franchise is if we really put in the time, we can do anything that we want,” says Lin, who – it should be noted – hasn’t yet shattered TF’s dreams of seeing Dom drag race on the surface of the moon. And with the series’ resident comic relief duo Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) glimpsed driving/flying a rocket-powered Pontiac Fiero in the trailer, the evidence is mounting. “If you look at that car, it was not done lightly. It took eight months to make that. We were literally calling NASA and talking to rocket scientists about the engine and the weight distribution.”

Rodriguez smiles conservatively when TF brings up the possibility of the family blasting off, but in every other respect, she’s not holding back. “When it comes to the action, it’s on steroids,” Rodriguez laughs. “It’s the biggest action I’ve ever seen. When I sit back I think about how we’re ever going to top that.” As the newest member of the Fast family, and a long-time fan himself, Cena was now behind the curtain, and he wasn’t disappointed. “I was actually surprised at how much they would allow us to do,” says Cena, who has a couple of physical confrontations with some interesting characters”, and thanks to an alliance of convenience with Charlize Theron’s tech terrorist Cipher, has a lot of toys to play with.

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The question is always: what are they going to do this time?” Cena says. “You know you’re going to see some action that’s going to make you crap your pants. The Saga prides itself on continuously raising the bar. But they never lose sight of the story. And I think that’s why people are waiting with bated breath for the ninth instalment.” While the world may be waiting for Fast 9, Vin Diesel is already looking to the future. “I started planning for Fast 10 before we started filming Fast 9. Very much so,” teases Diesel. In 2015, the actor/producer announced “one last trilogy to end the saga”, encompassing Fasts 8, 9 and 10. Though he reveals to TF that the ride of a lifetime may not end there. 

“The universe is so robust and so rich with talent and rich with story that, on one level, it’s totally feasible to have spinoffs, and I think that’s something that is inevitable. Universal deserves it because of how much they’ve invested in this little saga, and it’d be good to give back to Universal,” Diesel says. “And for the fans, should Fast 10 parts one and two be the conclusion, it would be nice for this world to continue for generations to come.”

Fast and Furious 9 is in cinemas from June 24. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading to cinemas.

Jordan Farley

I'm the News Editor at Total Film magazine, running the opening pages of every issue where you can read exclusive interviews and see first-look images from the biggest films. I was previously the Community Editor at sci-fi, fantasy and horror movie bible SFX. You'll find my name on news, reviews, and interviews covering every type of movie, from the latest French arthouse release to the biggest Hollywood blockbuster. My work has also featured in Official PlayStation Magazine and Edge. Outside of my day job, I'm a FromSoft fanatic (proudest achievement: beating Malenia solo) and a TV connoisseur (translation: I'll watch anything).