NOTE: “F9: The Fast Saga” is available to view in theatres here in North America, and elsewhere in the world wherever theatres are permitted to be open. It’s also available to watch at home via premium rental in select markets at the time of writing. When possible, we recommend that anyone without a full COVID-19 vaccination watch movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
FOR REFERENCE: This review of “F9: The Fast Saga” is based on a theatrical viewing.
After over a year of grueling, dispiriting and exhausting COVID-19 countermeasures across the world, we finally appear to have reached another point when we can enjoy going to the movie theatre again. Appropriately, a small, but potent wave of Summer blockbusters is primed to meet moviegoing audiences that have been starved for the theatrical experience for months on end, and one of the most high-profile cinematic odysseys looking to welcome us back to the big screen in earnest is F9: The Fast Saga, or just, “F9” if you don’t need the franchise disclaimer. Yes, we went from officially being too fast for the word, “The” in 2009, to becoming too fast for most of the title’s letters just over a decade later. Not sure how we can get much faster, but F9 is going to try.
F9 is one of numerous movies that was originally supposed to release in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it an entire year later, to May 2021 in several international markets, and June 2021 in domestic markets. Even then, the rise of new COVID-19 variants had prevented several markets, including some here in Canada, from seeing the movie on time due to continued theatre closures, though F9 has fortunately now been made available to watch at home via premium rental at the time of writing. Much like 2021’s previous biggest blockbuster, Godzilla vs. Kong however, F9 is best experienced in a movie theatre, where you can get the most out of its action-packed stunts and larger-than-life attitude, particularly after longtime franchise director, Justin Lin has returned to helm this new installment in Universal’s long-running action franchise! That’s certainly exciting for fans, though Lin’s return also comes with a surprisingly tough caveat; F9 marks the first entry in the so-called ‘Fast Saga‘ since 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, including its recent spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw, to not be written by regular Fast Saga scribe, Chris Morgan.
While other directors have been able to sub in for Lin with fairly solid results in Furious 7, The Fate of the Furious and Hobbs & Shaw, it would seem that everyone underestimated Chris Morgan’s contributions to this series, because Morgan is very much missed in F9. This staggering ninth installment is still a joy for the eyes to be sure, being loaded with the same flashy stunts and over-the-top action sequences that have come to define this franchise, but the magic between the character ensemble clearly feels compromised here. Worse still is that F9’s plot is so ridiculous, in a bad way, that it officially plunges the Fast Saga movies into self-parody, gleefully spitting up internet memes and tired cliches with an almost Deadpool-esque self-awareness that, frankly, doesn’t end up working.
If you treat F9 as a macho comedy with lots of expensive cinematic destruction behind it, it’s still an entertaining, goofy romp, and one that still works well enough as an addition to the considerably bloated Fast Saga. Despite that however, F9 is also a big step down from the past few Fast Saga movies especially, one that still hovers above particularly awkward low points like 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, but will nonetheless prove to be a disappointment for earnest fans, who will likely find that this series’ heart is now beating a lot slower than usual.
F9 largely brings back the franchise’s familiar cast, complete with the return of Sung Kang’s fan-favourite Han Lue, back from the dead. This is our latest dubious retcon of a former character death in the Fast Saga, and honestly, while it is great to see Han reunite with his wheelperson pals in F9, Han’s return nonetheless feels like a gimmick. It’s meant to serve as the latest excuse to bring Dom’s crew together again, when they should all be logically retired from their anti-hero professions by now, though even this doesn’t feel like a compelling reason to drag Dom, Letty and Mia in particular back into the fray. Oh, and this is before our latest excuse to keep the late Paul Walker’s Brain O’Conner off-screen to boot.
The other major cast gimmick in F9 is the introduction of a previously-unmentioned Toretto sibling, Jakob Toretto, played by John Cena. Naturally, it’s thoroughly bizarre that this other Toretto brother was never really acknowledged by Dom or Mia alike in previous Fast Saga installments, and sure enough, he’s a villain in this case. Even the sheer charisma of John Cena can only deliver so much with such a trite antagonist setup as well, one that’s paired with Charlize Theron’s Cipher, making a return in F9 that feels rather head-scratching to be quite honest. On top of that, there’s yet another major villain in F9’s ensemble that’s after our latest deadly macguffin, and he registers so little that you probably won’t even know his name, let alone any of his character traits!
It also feels evident by this point that Dom’s crew, even with the addition of Jakob and the return of Han, already feel like they’ve gone as far as they can go in terms of character development. This is the tenth Fast Saga movie after all, if you include Hobbs & Shaw, and by this point, we’ve all become pretty comfortable with who these characters are, and what they stand for. Thus, what’s left for this latest sequel is how effectively the cast works as a goofy ensemble, and to be fair, this long-running ensemble is still entertaining in F9. They just lack a compelling reason to come together this time out, with F9 recycling too many character tropes and story ‘twists’ to feel like a truly novel new addition to the franchise.
It is prudent to be clear about an unspoken truth behind the Fast Saga; No one is expecting it to have a truly smart storyline. Hell, the series’ previous offering, Hobbs & Shaw was suddenly mixing in killer Idris Elba cyborgs! Despite that though, former Fast Saga writer, Chris Morgan clearly had a ‘magic touch’ when it came to these movies, managing to capture a sense of stakes and unpredictability amid an action package that’s otherwise very proudly unrealistic and absurd. Without Morgan, F9’s story quickly feels unmoored and unsure of how to justify itself, at least beyond the same simple-minded mayhem that we can trust any given Fast Saga movie to deliver.
Sure, the Fast Saga movies have always been increasingly ridiculous, but they managed to balance this out with a real sense of an anti-hero family that had real things to lose. That heart just feels like it’s gone in F9, which is entirely patched together on Fast Saga cliches that only serve to bridge the gap before yet another Fast Saga movie to come in the near future. Dom and Letty being dragged out of retirement to do a favour for Mr. Nobody? Check. Apocalyptic-scale macguffin that doesn’t feel believable, but nonetheless needs to be secured to save the world? Check. A positively annoying amount of references to the importance of family? Check. A former series hero that was thought to be dead, but is now inexplicably revealed to be alive? Check. It’s all here, all present and accounted for. There’s nothing new or interesting about any of this, and even the winks and callbacks to former movies in F9 feel little more than eye-rolling.
Arguably the worst offenders in F9’s ineffectual storyline however are the moments that feel deliberately designed to pander to the fans and their internet memes. Because the Fast Saga has become such a silly, macho soap opera by this point, complete with evil family members and dead characters inexplicably returning to life, it doesn’t feel like the series has any true stakes left anymore, not in its current form. Even the return of Charlize Theron’s Cipher, sporting a truly hideous bowl cut after her imprisonment from the previous The Fate of the Furious, feels token and unnecessary, once again serving as little more than a tired tease for another sequel. There’s just nothing under the narrative hood in F9, even by the comically low plot standards of an already bonkers franchise.
The return of frequent Fast Saga director, Justin Lin feels like an overdue homecoming in F9. Lin’s direction has remained a franchise highlight for years, and he hasn’t missed a beat with this latest installment, even after years away from the series. In fact, if there’s any magic left to milk from this tired formula, it comes from Lin, who manages to take Dom’s crew to some genuinely amusing new places in F9. Whether it’s a very funny pairing of Tej and Roman across several story turns, or touching on the surprising revelation that tech expert, Ramsey can’t actually drive, despite her closest friends all being expert stunt drivers, Lin manages to experiment with these familiar characters to genuinely inspired effect here.
Unsurprisingly though, where Lin’s direction excels most is throughout F9’s action scenes, which are reliably excellent for the most part. Some of these scenes were glimpsed in F9’s trailers, with highlights including an intense drive through a minefield, and a city-destroying heist effort that involves giant car magnets, like some kind of deranged live-action Looney Tunes sketch, but all of these action beats are fantastic in motion. This series’ trademark sense of high-impact, over-the-top stunt work and environmental carnage is well intact in F9, which helps to at least somewhat compensate for the fact that this franchise is now openly acknowledging, even if as a gag, that its lead characters are basically invulnerable superheroes at this point.
Even Lin’s direction has its limits though, and where it tends to stumble is in trying to wring genuine emotion out of a disappointingly hollow script. This is despite Lin himself contributing to F9’s script and story treatment, which is perhaps how Universal was able to coax him back to the director’s chair for the first time in almost ten years. Regardless, even this movie’s all-important rivalry between Dom and his estranged brother, Jakob feels like it doesn’t register, with everything in the ‘story’ simply serving as an excuse to destroy more buildings, wreck more cars, or blow up whatever F9 can stuff explosives into. Truly, this franchise has never felt more brainless than it does in F9, and while that’s part of the fun, that brainlessness can only take a ninth installment in a marquee Universal franchise so far on its own.
When it comes down to it, F9 can simply be described as, “Another one.” It’s just another one. It’s well-produced and slickly directed, but that’s par for the course with the Fast Saga. Beyond that over-the-top window dressing, there’s nothing special to dig into. The jokes are tired, the stakes are played-out, and the winking, meme-baiting self-awareness doesn’t end up working in this movie’s favour. The series’ former main writer, Chris Morgan was really needed to mine something more noteworthy from the obligatory existence of F9. Without him, this latest sequel ends up feeling like little more than an attractive, but hollow cash grab.
The Fast Saga movies have managed to defy franchise fatigue in the past, particularly with 2011’s Fast Five and 2015’s Furious 7, but it once again appears that this series is running out of ideas. It’s definitely not the end of the road for the Fast Saga, considering that Universal now has two mainline sequels in the pipe, along with a follow-up to Hobbs & Shaw, and that’s before considering plenty of insider scuttlebutt that Universal wants to build out the Fast Saga into its own shared universe, with its own series of sub-franchises. Before any of that can happen though, Universal needs to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to properly soup up this rig again, because the Fast Saga’s creative garage is starting to rely on too many spare parts.
- Reliably flashy action and stunts
- Some character humour works well
- Lin's overdue directing return
- Flat, uninteresting characterization, especially among the villains
- Too many recycled story and cast tropes
- Non-existent stakes