2021 | PG-13 | starring Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, John Cena, Sung Kang, Charlize Theron | directed by Justin Lin | 2 hrs 23 mins |

It’s become a joke, a fun Vin Diesel meme, that the Fast and the Furious series is all about family. It’s that superficial thing that Diesel’s Dominique Torretto says at the end of every movie when his surrogate family of street racers, cops, criminals and hackers gather around the table to celebrate their latest mission. He says it to give the movie the sense that its about something more than just cars getting banged up, but we all know it’s hollow and we all go with it anyway because this series has gotten so much fun. That’s the agreement we have with these movies. Because it fills a big budget action movie gap between the meaner, dumber Michael Bay style action movies and the weightless, CGI-laden Marvel action. When these movies crunch cars and bang up their heroes there is a grit to it. The 9th film (as bizarrely title as every other film in this series), F9: The Fast Sage however, actually takes this to heart.

As a young man Dominique Toretto watched his dad perish in a flaming car crash on the race track, a tragedy that he has blamed his brother Jakob (John Cena) for ever since. When agency-less covert operative Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) sends an emergency message to Dom and his crew, they learn that the plane he was carrying Cipher (Charlize Theron) has crashed in Central America, setting her free and releasing into the world one half of Ares, a super-hacking device that if combined with it’s other half and a key can be used to take control of every computer in the world, everything in the world that runs on 1’s and 0’s as hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) puts it. Dom’s crew (Emmanuel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Jordana Brewster) set off on  a race around the world to prevent Jakob and Cipher from getting hold of the other half of Ares and holding the world’s superpowers for ransom.

First the good stuff. When this series is on, it’s on and there are a few set pieces here that are a total blast. My theory is that one of the reasons that that these movies are so popular is because they are filling an adventure hole left in movies when Steven Spielberg bailed on adventure films for historical pieces. As if to affirm that, in the first big set piece, a car chase across the mine-riddle turf of Montequinto, Tyrese’s van is blown nose-down into a crevasse between two cliffs and then starts to slip down toward a land mine underneath. It’s a Rube Goldberg bit of environmental action Indiana Jones would slip out of in the nick of time. In another great piece, Ramsey (who really steals this movie for me) gets behind the wheel of the villain’s truck and uses it’s giant electromagnet to rip every metal object on the sidewalk into the path of chasing cars. The fun with magnets continues in the finale when the movie simply introducing the concept of an electromagnet in a car suddenly, somehow, leads to all of Dom’s cars installed with magnets creating another nutty excuse to fling cars through the air. Series maestro Justin Lin returns to the directors chair and these 2 or 3 chases look great.

Looking back I was kind of surprised by my effusive praise of the previous entry The Fate of the Furious, but this movie retroactively reaffirms what was so good about that one. That movie understands how silly it is and briskly zips from one action beat and high concept idea to the next. F9 – with it’s astonishing 2 and a half hour length – is a bloated movie that slogs through flashbacks and endless character set-up for long stretches between the action it does well. Some of the zanier filler includes a flashback of young Dom and Jakob in a street race that means nothing and a scene where Helen Mirren rips through the streets of London with Dom in tow that exists for no reason other than to pad the credits. We get Tyrese in a bit of self-aware commentary wondering if they are devinely protected because they always walk away from missions without a scratch. The Dom/Jakob relationship is given a shocking amount of screen time that could have been just as easily been conveyed with a line or 2 of dialog. Some of the nonsense that doesn’t work so well is the human “key” to lock Ares (do they have something in their DNA?) and the movie’s unintentionally hilarious backflip to retcon the series biggest plot hole: the death of Hon (Sung Kang) in Tokyo Drift. F9 has serious whiplash, both seaming to know and not know how seriously to take itself.

F9 doesn’t know when to quit, calling in every celebrity favor and spit-wad loony idea it can think of. This series has always been cartoonish, but when F9 literally launches Ludacris and Tyrese into space on a rocket-powered Pontiac Fiero it’s a stunt that probably should have been held for Fast and the Furious X. We’re literally in parody-of-itself, 22 Jump Street credit scene territory here. All that alongside the most serious, and earnest Fast film in years, one that thinks we really care about Dom’s relationship with a brother we’ve never met. The whole reason we watch these movies is to not think about characters and F9 breaks that unspoken agreement.