They’ve made their choice; are you in or out?
When I walked out of the crowded theater the first time I saw F9, I felt a bit awkward; the full screening had an audibly good reaction to the movie, a better one than I had. I was wondering why; out of all the staff involved in the Fast and Furious franchise, I never would have guessed that I would feel the absence of Chris Morgan – long time writer of the franchise, for entries 3 through 8 and Hobbs and Shaw. The second time – with a different group of friends expecting different things from the franchise – I saw the reaction I expected out of another full screening; a lot of laughter, a lot of groans of dissatisfaction and remarks of how this was “too much”. As the title suggests, I feel like this entry, more than any other, is the dividing point for the fanbase; if you thought Fast and Furious was always winking and tipping its hat to the absurd nature it has cultivated, F9 kicks in the 4th wall and sits down with you for a cold Corona. It is no longer a wink to something silly, it is purposefully comedic; it is no longer over-the-top, old-school-of-thought action; it is a cartoonish, absurdist thrill ride that aims for the stars. Will you be on board? Only you can answer that, as fans seem divided; I will concede to this entry being the weakest from the “modern” titles, but I will not deny that I had a blast seeing it. I don’t know what is next and if this entry was too much for the fanbase (on the whole), but that is not for me to decide; what I can – and will – do is walk you through my thoughts on the latest and craziest entry in the franchise.
The latest in the franchise has most of the reoccurring family members reunite to face their biggest threat to date; Jacob Toretto, Dom’s youngest brother. If you’re like me, this premise already makes you laugh. No recap is as effective of the story of this franchise, as that sentence; in a franchise whose whole philosophy and grounding is the concept of “family, regardless of what has happened”, the fact that the main character has a brother 10 (!) movies in that no one knows about is just stupid. I won’t go into the other silly elements that they have already shown in trailers, because those can be fun to discover if you haven’t seen them yet. Right off the bat, the whole beginning sequence is more insane and over-the-top than anything that has come before and it will get whackier and more comical from here; that latter being the first part of contention for fans.
F9 is an action-comedy. Roman is not the only one cracking jokes and being purposefully silly; the whole concept is. There are entire scenes whose sole purpose is to make you laugh and nothing else; not one-off moments or one-liners. It takes the community’s memes and banter as something to deliver on, not something that was created to jest about something we love. Characters have conversations about the things we joke about and they also deliver on the one “wish” every fan has had with the franchise; I’ll give you a non-spoiler example. Roman is HUNGRY all the time; he has a reoccurring bit that is also a community joke, but this is his other character trait. He eats, non-stop, all the time; this used to be a scene in other movies, a bit of levity before the movie gets a bit too stale, but now it is a joke that keeps getting iterated upon. He has nothing else to do, which is also a community joke, but this time it is literal; he is another body, a non-specialist character in a group with God-like Dom and everyone else has their gimmick.
Beyond that substantial shift though, F9 is absurd; Fast and Furious (at least the modern titles) has always been over the top and occasionally absurd, but never full on absurd. There are action scenes that I laughed as hard as any other comedy, just because of the sheer absurdity of what was happening. This is where I think the dividing line will be drawn; have you seen the Fast and Furious franchise as an action blockbuster or as a mindless, fun excuse to go to the movies. If you’re like me and you’ve answered the latter, then this entry will still be enjoyable to you, but if not then I don’t think you will walk away happy. This is where the strongest point of the movie lies in: Absurdity. It is fun/funny to watch most of the time and it sacrifices everything else the franchise has built in order to achieve that; all but one thing that happens in the last scene before the credits, which I found to be a nice homage and tip of the hat in a tasteful way to a valuable member of the family and community.
F9 then takes the franchise in a new direction, but that comes with its own set of problems they need to deal with; mainly, the pacing is horrible. While the first half is pretty good and even has a scene straight-out of the original trilogy, the pacing at that point slows to a crawl in order to set up what comes after and explain the unexplainable. The attempts at grounding these explanations on characters, story, and logic fail miserably; they are too long, too convoluted, and don’t actually answer anything they just say a lot of stuff so it seems like there is an answer somewhere. So, you have an absurdist action-comedy with a pretty good action beginning, boring and overtly-long middle with minor highlights of entertainment and comedy (the explanations were pretty funny in how poor they were), before it actually becomes what it so clearly wants to be (and probably loses half its audience). Interspersed is also the backstory of Dom and Jacob (and I guess Mia since the movie also just remembered of her existence at the equivalent point of its story), which is where my main grievance with this movie lies: There could have been a heart to this machine. There are moments where the story does try to give some feelings to its characters, but it gets sidetracked into setting up a meaningless twist (that is easy to predict even before seeing the movie) and painting its muscular leads as demigods, instead of actual humans; I’m not asking for the franchise to put more emphasis on things it does not have an interest in, but Chris Morgan seemed to understand this franchise deeply in a way the new writers don’t. I never had that moment of wistfulness in other entries; I never had that moment of disillusionment with the over-the-top set-pieces and choices.
I don’t think F9 is a bad movie; I had a ton of fun watching it, laughing along and occasionally be excited by some set-pieces (particularly in the beginning). I don’t mind the new direction, even though I can’t see how they would top the stakes of this movie in the future. I don’t think it is poorly made (Justin Lin is a great director of action, even if it is this over-the-top) and while I though Cena was a bit too stiff and “boring”, I found the rest of the cast to be at their usual, good standards. I won’t contradict or refute anyone who didn’t enjoy it, because that is a valid reaction to this movie, but I don’t think this is the beginning of the end just yet; the next one will probably be exactly that, but until then this was a solid entry despite how controversial and splitting it may end up being. Also, this may have been the one movie that has benefited from the long quarantines, as I find it much easier to just be happy, now that I can go back to the movies again and watch a big dumb action blockbuster with a bucket of popcorn on my lap, which is what Fast and Furious was always meant to be.