REVIEW: F9: The Fast Saga [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 143 minutes
    Release Date: June 25th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Justin Lin
    Writer(s): Daniel Casey & Justin Lin / Justin Lin & Alfredo Botello and Daniel Casey / Gary Scott Thompson (characters)

Things change.

One familiar name reenters the franchise as another leaves (or, more accurately, shifts laterally) with director Justin Lin returning to helm the first Fast and Furious film not written by Chris Morgan since before the two took control of the franchise in 2006. A welcome is therefore in order for Kin scribe Daniel Casey as he stewards the saga towards an endgame star/producer Vin Diesel stated has been in the works for some time now. Whether he’ll continue to steer the ship forward remains to be seen, though, as details surrounding the next chapter have been scarce due to COVID-19 pushing things back while forcing studios to take stock in the future viability of their IP. Not that Universal would ever pull the plug on this billion-dollar baby.

It’s Casey rather than Morgan who gets to put the Toretto #family into space alongside Lin (who shares screenwriting credit)—a place we all knew would come into play at some point considering the way things were going. F9: The Fast Saga is not only the tenth installment (including the Hobbs & Shaw spin-off), but it’s the latest piece of a journey that evolved into exotic counterterrorism adventures from origins as a Point Break riff two decades ago. Dom (Diesel) and the crew have kept going despite fictional deaths (RIP Gal Gadot and Sung Kang, #JusticeforHan) and real ones (longtime co-star Paul Walker may be gone, but his character Brian still lives on-screen in the background) while always finding room to reinvent their mythology for box office receipts.

That’s ultimately why you retroactively turn Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) into a decorated hero caught too deep into a conspiracy outside his control. It’s why you fiddle with the timeline to mix and match stories that allow you to bring fan favorites back from the dead (Michelle Rodriguez‘s Letty) and forget that Diesel had initially refused to star in any sequels before becoming the series’ de facto godfather. It’s also why you let Fate of the Furious villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) get away unscathed. Because with Shaw no longer enemy number one, another antagonist had to take his place. It’s just unfortunate that doing so means you’re nothing but a pawn for an endgame yet to arrive. No avenue to redemption means perpetual stasis while everyone else ascends.

Who gets the opportunity this time? Jakob Toretto (John Cena). You read that right. Dom and Mia’s (Jordana Brewster) thus far non-existent brother. Cue flashbacks to when they were pit crew members of their father’s successful racing crew so we can see how a rift could cause a guy who’s willing to die for family forget he had some more. With the help of a rich dictator’s son (Thue Ersted Rasmussen‘s Otto), Jakob has used his decades of CIA operative experience to start stealing a device that will allow him to do exactly what Cipher hoped to do last film … only easier. He kidnaps her to find its location, pays Queenie Shaw (Helen Mirren) to facilitate a reunion with Dom, and keeps his enemies alive without fail.

The number of instances where Otto’s men have guns to Dom and his team’s heads before simply letting them go is comical. So much so that Casey and Lin finally allow themselves the room to make fun of it. Between Roman (Tyrese Gibson) believing he’s invincible (and an early scene he should have died three times in will have you thinking the same) and a glorious fight pitting him and Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) against four bad guys in the back of a truck being driven by a never-driven-before Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), it almost seems as though the filmmakers have finally realized what they have. Be serious for the melodramatic emotional beats, but also let loose otherwise. Push those outlandish stunts to intentionally meta-levels of entertainment.

I really enjoyed the pop culture references (Star Wars is mentioned in a biting bit of dialogue), the constant callbacks to previous films (whether by cameos or Easter eggs), and the pretzel twisting necessary to cement random asides into canon as crucial moments in Fast and Furious lore. I’m talking Saw levels of gymnastics that only work after you reinvent a villain, introduce shadowy government figures (Kurt Russell‘s Mr. Nobody), and put a should-be-dead-but-miraculously-isn’t Han on the posters. We need to hope Diesel was telling the truth about this planned ending because they’re running out of real estate with which to twist ever so slightly onto a different trajectory. How badly Theron is wasted here makes me think he was, though, and they’re simply saving her for later.

That leaves Jakob and whether Dom has it in him to stop his flesh and blood (and this is the film to make it happen with a mean streak and massive body count that sees Dom going Bane on a combatant’s back). The constant flashbacks should tell you all you need to know (there’s no point going back over and over again unless new evidence gradually arises to turn incontrovertible evidence of evil into a misunderstanding), but that doesn’t mean the ride won’t be the usual adrenaline rush of excitement, action, and humor. I did mention space, after all. With Roman and Tej being the ones who go (on the back of a rocket you need to see to believe), you know you’ll at least crack a smile.

And that’s why we keep watching these dumb movies anyway. We watch to see insane electromagnets pull cars through buildings and give the good guys some tricks up their sleeves where physics and gravity are concerned. We watch to see which actor from the past will turn up and how many horrible things a villain can do before earning a redemptive smile for doing the right thing despite it still being for selfish reasons rather than altruism. Will the team stop the apocalypse again? Will they do it without a scratch again? Will they drink some Coronas during a backyard celebration … again? Of course they will. Toretto’s merry band of miscreants have become James Bond, but they’re still working class. Some real stakes wouldn’t hurt, though.

[1] Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures. Caption (from left) Dom (Vin Diesel), Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and Jakob (John Cena) with additional cast members in F9, co-written and directed by Justin Lin. Copyright © 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Universal Pictures. Caption (from left) Mia (Jordana Brewster), Elle (Anna Sawai) and Han (Sung Kang) in F9, co-written and directed by Justin Lin. Copyright © 2021 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Universal Pictures. Caption (from left) Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) in F9, co-written and directed by Justin Lin. Copyright © 2021 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.

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