Just how far(-fetched) can a film go in the name of over-the-top silliness? In Fast & Furious 8 released four years ago (has it been that long already?), we already have an outrageous chase sequence between a few vehicles and a submarine along the frozen tundra. If you think that was too preposterous to suspend your disbelief, wait until you see what Justin Lin has in store in the long-delayed Fast & Furious 9.
Lin, who last directed the sixth instalment back in 2013 before James Wan and F. Gary Gray temporarily took over Fast & Furious in the respective seventh and eighth films return to the franchise for the fifth time. The ninth film sees Lin try his best to outdo Fast & Furious 8‘s ridiculous stunts with can-you-top-these moments such as the one involving a Tarzan-like swinging car across the cliff seen earlier in the film. If that’s not enough, Lin even stretches the limits of sheer absurdity in a later scene where Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) literally find themselves wearing spacesuits while floating in space inside a rockets-strapped car (Pontiac Fiero, to be exact).
You see, I have managed to survive watching all previous Fast & Furious films no matter how increasingly silly they get. But the two aforementioned sequences made me question my sanity after watching them. I understand that a film like Fast & Furious is meant to be mindless entertainment. The kind that you just leave your brain (and your logic) at home, sit back and enjoy the show. Still, there is always a limit to how much can a person accept the whole element of disbelief. I already have a tough time getting over that submarine chase sequence in Fast & Furious 8 and now, both of the swinging car and the car-floating-in-the-space moments are just too much to even qualify as a guilty-pleasure entertainment.
And strangely enough, I find Lin, who is typically an ace in the action department seems to be running out of fuel this time around. The stunts may look spectacular but the overall execution feels like a live-action cartoon that is all busy visuals but lacks the necessary flair or visceral impact. However, some of the vehicular chase sequences, notably the final third act involved the heavy use of a powerful magnet did offer a few well-staged action setpieces.
The story — credited to Lin himself and franchise newcomer Daniel Casey of 2018’s Kin fame — is overstuffed with numerous flashbacks and the recurring theme about the self-serious importance of family. The flashbacks in question refer to the on-and-off extended segments related to young Dom (played by Vinnie Bennett, who strangely resembling more like Benicio Del Toro) and his brother (!), Jakob (Finn Cole). These moments are meant to add (ahem) emotional and dramatic subtleties while offering a fresh new angle about Vin Diesel’s Dom’s past life that we have never seen before in the franchise history.
The thing is, the whole secret sibling/long-lost brother plot device feels too abrupt (read: last-minute addition) and Fast & Furious 9 expects us to swallow the fact that Dom has a brother all along? It doesn’t help either when the introduction of Jakob Toretto played by Finn Cole and John Cena in their respective younger and older versions are more like a burden to the already padded-out narrative. A burden that adds little dramatic intensity to the sibling rivalry between Dom and Jakob. Even with the 142-minute running time — the longest duration for a Fast & Furious film so far, it still fails miserably to establish their relationship. I find it hard to invest in their characters, particularly since Vin Diesel and the blank-faced John Cena both lack the much-needed acting chops to pull off their roles as two estranged brothers.
Then, there’s a poor excuse of a story about a technological MacGuffin that Dom and his crew (among them including the aforementioned Roman and Tej as well as Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey and Jordana Brewster’s Mia) is assigned to retrieve at all cost. The film also sees the return of past characters, where Tokyo Drift‘s Lucas Black and Shad Moss (Bow Wow) reprise their respective roles as Sean and Twinkie. But their appearances do not really add much to the film other than mere fan services and for the sake of comic relief.
Even the supposedly dead character and I’m talking about Sung Kang’s Han, who was killed in the car explosion in the third film is unfairly revived in Fast & Furious 9. It did give us an explanation of how he actually survived the explosion but seriously, I barely care at this point. I know that he’s a fan-favourite character but resurrecting him does feel more like a desperate attempt to keep the franchise alive.
Overall, Fast & Furious 9 is a bloated disappointment that tries too hard to be serious and silly and I hate to say this — this ninth film is the worst entry I’ve ever seen since 2009’s Fast & Furious 4. Despite its massive shortcomings, Fast & Furious 9 still manages to make a sizable chunk of money at over US$710 million worldwide, which is quite an achievement for a tentpole film released during the pandemic era.
If you are still reading here, the film has a mid-credits scene that paved the way for not one but a two-part finale. Justin Lin is set to direct both films and I’m curious to see how is he going to end the franchise.