From The Starting Line
At its heart, F9 is—as any Fast movie should be—a story about family. This time, F9 tackles a broken family, and what happens to the pieces of a family that falls apart. It’s a great theme, and it pits the concepts of blood family and chosen family against one another far more effectively than The F8 of the Furious managed to in 2017.
But the theme is strangely hampered by the enormous scale of the overarching action plot.
The best of F9 comes from its smaller-scale elements; the personal dramas and histories between all the characters both old and new. Some of these characters have known each other for 20 years, after all, so there’s decades of history to pull from and explore, and the core conceit of the story is pitting two estranged brothers—Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his brother Jakob Toretto (John Cena)—against each other.
These smaller-scale internal struggles make up the core of the story’s emotion, but the film doesn’t always give those parts enough room to breathe before the massive, world-ending scale of the action plot swoops in again and carries us away into the next action set-piece.
It's a typical Hollywood problem, more than an F9-specific problem, of losing the emotional threads of a story behind all the explosions and world-shaking consequences of whatever magic device the bad guys have this time that push the action plot along. That said, the action set-pieces are what draw the new fans, and boy does F9 deliver on action!
A Familiar Fast Family
F9 excels when it returns to its roots. It does so quite literally, returning to the stories of the Toretto family’s history mentioned back in the original 2001 film.
F9 gets back to celebrating being an ensemble cast. After Paul Walker’s passing, the series had pivoted to putting Dominic Toretto at the forefront of pretty much everything, for better or worse.
But F9 gives fantastic moments for the Fast Family across the board, and some new, exciting combinations. The parts that stuck with me were all the much more grounded segments with these characters; the genuine moments with Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) when they weren’t hampered by comedy, and I particularly loved getting to have a whole segment of an adventure with Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who’ve both been part of the franchise since day 1 but had few moments with just the two of them before.
The return of Han Lue (Sung Kang) was so dearly awaited, and in my opinion, is one of the saving graces that made F9 work so well. An ensemble cast doesn’t work without a big ensemble, and the team has been shrinking ever since Fast & Furious 6. F9 brings back Mia and Han—along with several other familiar faces from Tokyo Drift—and introduces fantastic new members like Elle (Anna Sawai), though I won’t spoil anything with her story.
By bringing back beloved characters, the Fast Family finally feels fleshed out again, and so much better for it. I’m definitely biased by the fact Han was already my favourite character in the franchise, but his return was my absolute highlight in F9.
And I’m far from the only one. Han's character was so charismatic in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift that they made the subsequent 3 films all take place before it chronologically, just so they could have him in the cast! His fans' love has seriously shaped the franchise, as Sung Kang attributes the intensity and volume of fans calling for justice for Han and for more to his story as the driving reason for his return.
Where it falters
The one thing that really fell flat for me in F9, unfortunately, was the comedy. Comedy has never been a strong suit for the Fast Saga, but previously the comedy in these movies has been (at least compared to the action) subtler. In F9, almost every joke is at the expense of a character—typically Roman—rather than being clever or letting us laugh with the characters.
The jokes feel written by committee, with most chances for a really clever laugh lost for the lowest hanging fruit. It’s a disappointment that lets down several scenes that could have been incredible without a shoehorned laugh.
That said, a couple of times they stuck the landing, so they don’t miss every time. Luckily, the comedic attempts are few and far between, so they don’t spoil too much.
The weight of a 20-year legacy
There’s always an elephant in the room when it comes to a new Fast Saga instalment: Brian. The character of Brian O’Connor, played by Paul Walker until his tragic passing in 2013, was core to every story from the very beginning.
I think there will always be some intrinsic magic that the series lost in that moment which it will never really be able to get back. Though I won’t go too into it here, I spoke a bit about Paul’s legacy in the franchise in a previous article looking back at the franchise’s twenty-year history. In F9, they continue to honour him respectfully and keep his legacy alive, when it would have been easy to misstep by trying to include his character via CGI or something else.
Paul’s absence will always loom over the series, and though they do their best to push the boundaries in every way they can, that limitation will always be there.
This is where the film struggles with what audience it wants to respect. It wants to appeal to new fans, but it also tries to honour the long-term fans and the decades of history behind the characters. I still find it funny that it was harder for me to wrap my head around the change of introducing a brother for Dom & Mia Toretto when they haven’t had one for the past 8 films than it was for me to give the thumbs up to a character coming back from the dead (again!).
The change had me… apprehensive at first. But, having been through the whole roller coaster, the one thing I’ll say to other long-time fans wondering if F9 will honour their history and pull it off is:
Buy in. Have faith, and F9 will bring you home.
And make sure you stay when the credits roll. There's a little something extra to enjoy.
F9 flares bright and brilliantly
In the end, the more I’ve thought about F9, the more I’ve liked it. While there are certainly elements that drag it down from the heights it could have reached, they drag it from incredible down to still great.
It may not be a Furious 7, or the pinnacle of fun from Fast Five, but it returns to its roots in such a delightful way, and it shines brightly, like only a Fast Film can.