Review: Outer space-bound 'F9' may want to check its engine light
To infinity and beyond? The "Fast and Furious" saga is showing signs of wear and tear.
To say that "F9" goes off the rails is to imply that the "Fast and the Furious" series was ever on the rails, when in fact the big muscles and bigger muscle cars franchise — now 20 years old and 10 films deep — has always been in its own state of perpetual drift.
It started clicking around its fifth installment, where it morphed from a bro saga into an airy riff on heist films, and has since become a full-on spy fantasy. "F9's" supersized more-is-obviously-better approach takes the series to the furthest reaches of the galaxy — if you ever wanted to see Ludacris in space, this is your movie — but it's missing the goofy, almost innocent charm that made the midsection of the series such a giddy delight. The franchise is now showing signs of engine trouble.
Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto is back and off the grid as the movie opens, living quietly with his ride-or-die, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his son, Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holtane, trading duties) on a remote farm. A flashback to Dom's youth — the series' first-ever glimpse into the past of its characters, better late than never — shows the death of Dom's father, who died in a fiery racing accident, and introduces Toretto's brother, Jakob.
Jakob, it turns out, grew up to be an international man of mystery, and is now back in the form of hulking pro wrestler-turned-thespian John Cena. The former 16-time WWE Champion is a formidable foe for Dom, and if only Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson had not sat out this installment there could have been an epic throwdown of pure body mass at the film's center.
The Rock may be gone, but most everybody else the franchise has ever employed is back, and it's quite a rollcall: Tyrese Gibson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as Roman and Tej, the film's comic relief duo; Jordana Brewster as Mia, Dom's sister and wife of Paul Walker's Brian O'Conner (who is still alive in the "Fast" universe, bless his heart); Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey, a British hacker and a part of Dom's team; Helen Mirren as Queenie, mother to Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw and a snarking perpetrator of mischief in her own right; Statham's Shaw, not officially on board here but — hint hint — wait around during the end credits and you may see him pop up; Kurt Russell's Mr. Nobody, a shadowy government agent and behind-the-scenes string-puller; Charlize Theron's Cipher, the cyberterrorist from 2017's "The Fate of the Furious" who spends most of her time here enclosed in a glass box; Lucas Black's Sean Boswell, a holdover from 2006's "Tokyo Drift" who is back alongside pals Shad "Bow Wow" Moss (as Twinkie) and Jason Tobin (as Earl Hu); Shea Whigham's Agent Stasiak, still sporting a busted nose from the last time he was popped in the face by O'Conner; and even Sung Kang's Han, whose death in "Tokyo Drift" was later revisited in "Fast & Furious 6" and who seems somewhat confused by his own presence here.
That's an unruly cast to begin with, and we're also introduced to several newbies: Michael Rooker as Buddy, a gearhead teammate of Dom's dad; Thue Ersted Rasmussen as Otto, a baddie who bankrolls Jakob's dreams of world domination; and Cardi B, yes Cardi B, who plays Leysa, leader of a team of female mercenaries who extract Dom from a close-call situation. Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and podcasting guru Bill Simmons are also listed in the cast, but you'll have to have sharp eyes to spot them.
Dom and his team are out to stop Jakob and his crew from getting their hands on something called Aries, an all-powerful device that can hack into any computer system on Earth (and is at least the third world-dominating contraption the "Fast" series has thrown at viewers). This quest naturally involves fast cars and high-risk stunts, and when Tyrese's Roman begins to question his seeming invincibility from one death-defying incident after another, it marks the first time the "Fast" series has become eye-winkingly self-aware.
Metro Detroit-raised screenwriter Dan Casey, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Justin Lin (back for his fifth "Fast," and first since "Fast" 6), manages to make sense out of most everything, at least in the way it pieces together in "Fast" lore. But it's a lot to sift through as a viewer, and it's best not to think too hard about the hows or the whys of how or why Roman and Tej end up orbiting Earth in a Pontiac Fiero. Just let them sit back and do their thing.
"F9" mostly lets its characters do their thing, and Lin stages some wild chases through both city streets and open jungles. But the momentum is a bit off, and everyone — including Dom, who in Diesel's performance is seeming a bit road-weary at this point — seems to have already gotten out of the "Fast" films what they're going to get out of the "Fast" films. Is outer space a bridge too far? Yeah, probably, especially if you thought skydiving cars (that's "Furious 7") were the furthest away from logic this series would ever go. "F9" keeps pushing and never lets its foot off the gas, but the vehicle is beginning to run on fumes.
Rated PG-13: for sequences of violence and action, and language
Running time: 145 minutes