Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel, Justin Lin, Jeffrey Kirschenbaum and Joe Roth Director: Justin Lin Screenplay: Daniel Casey and Justin Lin Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, John Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Thue Ersted Rasmussen, Sung Kang, Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Vinnie Bennett, Finn Cole, J.D. Paro, Lucas Black, Shad Moss, Jason Tobin, Anna Sawai, Jim Parrack and Charlize Theron Distributor: Universal Pictures
“Things change,” intones Dominic Toretto in Vin Diesel’s characteristic monotone near the start of this ninth (tenth, if you include the 2019 spin-off “Hobbs & Shaw”) installment of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. How right he is. What began in 2001 as a relatively modest tale of street-racing thieves and the undercover cop sent to catch them has evolved into a big-budget, CGI-heavy clone of the “Mission Impossible” movies, except that the muscle cars remain as integral a part of the ensemble as its muscle-headed hero and his pals. A sappy thread about the importance of family is also a constant.
This time around that last element comes in the form of Dominic’s long-estranged brother Jakob (John Cena). In 1989 their father Jack (J.D. Paro) was killed in a race with his sons (Vinnie Bennett as Dom, Finn Cole as Jakob) part of his pit crew. Dom was sentenced to prison for attacking the rival driver (Jim Parrack) he held responsible for the fatal crash, but he has come to blame Jakob for Jack’s death and forced him into exile from the family by beating him in a race.
That back story, along with explanations about the truth of the matter, is told in flashbacks that punctuate the present-day action. That begins when Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), the team’s old handler, sends a plea to Dom, his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their colleagues—the comic-relief duo of Roman and Tej (Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and computer expert Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel)—to travel somewhere in Central America and retrieve from a disabled plane a portion of a device called Ares, which—like all such modern MacGuffins—has the power to hack into computer systems (notably those that control weapons) and take them over, using a satellite link.
After a wild fight with a larger armed force they fail: Cipher and the Ares half are spirited away by Jakob, no less, who’s apparently a former agent now working in league with nefarious European supervillain wannabe Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and, just for good measure, the team’s super-smart enemy Cipher (Charlize Theron), whom they’ve captured and are keeping in a glass cage. That, in turn, sends the team on a mission to Edinburgh to keep Jakob and Otto from stealing the other half of Ares and discovering the final key to its operation—the identity of which turns out to be something really silly.
In the course of this effort they are joined by some other old friends, including Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and car jockey Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) from “Tokyo Drift.” That installment of the series is also invoked in an appearance by Han Lue (Sung Kang), who famously died in it. We even get a cameo by Jason Statham (of “Hobbs & Shaw”) in the end credits. (No surprise, really, since a sequel to it is currently in the works.)
Like its immediate predecessors, “F9” is basically a live-action cartoon, filled with absurd and destructive vehicle chases, numerous martial-style fights, and even a deliberately ludicrous bit in which Roman and Tej are launched into space in a car equipped with a rocket booster in order to destroy the satellite Ares is supposed to hook up with. Previous entries in the series have been accused of jumping the shark, but this one jumps a whole school of sharks, lined up as though they were positioned for an Evel Knievel motorcycle stunt.
Of course the fact that all of this is patently ridiculous doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t also be entertaining. But in this case it isn’t, particularly, for several reasons. One is that the chases are much too protracted, so that they grow exhausting rather than exciting, and the heaviness of the CGI in them is oppressive. The fights, meanwhile, may be decently enough choreographed, but they’re so sloppily shot (by cinematographer Stephen F. Windon) and edited (by the trio of Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto and Greg D’Auria) that they’re hard to appreciate. (In one case, when Letty and Mia are attacked by a bunch of martial-arts guys, the thugs courteously charge them one at a time so that they can be dispatched individually—a cliché from old kung-fu movies that was loopy twenty years ago.)
And there’s entirely too much repetition: it’s difficult to keep track of the number of times Dom and his pals are surrounded by Otto’s army of black-garbed mercenaries with their automatic rifles drawn, only to battle their way out, or to have unlikely allies suddenly show up to save the day when all seems lost.
Then there’s what becomes an unhappy motif, especially in the last reel—the use of magnets, whose power seems very selective indeed, affecting some metals but not others. One of the most tedious aspects of the picture are the endless shots of the magnets being turned on and off on the consoles of the cars with which our heroes are chasing the enormous truck from which Otto and Jakob are planning to connect Ares with the satellite, especially since the switches resemble something you might find on a washing machine in a Laundromat.
Still, at least the action scenes provide the illusion of entertainment. The extensive expository material that comes between them is deadly dull. That includes not only the flashbacks with young Dom and Jakob, but all the sequences involving the team, in which the dialogue is leaden (and leadenly delivered) and the attempts at humor, especially in the byplay between Gibson and Bridges, unutterably puerile. And when the present-day Dom and Jakob duel verbally against each other, it resembles a confrontation between two Easter Island statues. (Cena, who can actually be a genial presence onscreen, isn’t allowed to show a trace of that here; he’s forced to play as stone-faced as Diesel, for whom it comes naturally.)
Virtually all of the performances, in fact, seem drab, perhaps to conform to the star’s stolidity. Naturally Rasmussen is an exception, offering the usual villainous smarminess that’s obligatory in such roles, and Helen Mirren works hard to bring a bit of sauciness to her cameo. But otherwise everyone just seems to be going through the motions. Justin Lin has directed four previous movies in the F&F series, and frankly he seems to have lost whatever touch for (or interest in) them he once had.
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine that any director could have done much with this script. “F9” is action-filled yet oddly dull.
There is one aspect of the picture that’s a nice change from the norm, though. Brian Tyler’s score may be nothing special, but at least on the print screened for press the sound mix keeps it relatively subdued; the crashes, bashes and explosions come through all too well, but the music is heard at rather low volume. That doesn’t eliminate the bombast, but it’s a slight improvement from what you might expect.