“Fast and Furious” franchise, “F9” tests the limits of its ludicrousness – and that’s before a Pontiac Fiero rockets into orbit.
Space isn’t the four-wheeled final frontier but just another garage for the action-packed “Fast” movie series. The ninth installment (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday) is an overloaded mélange of the “Furious” formula, with rampant vehicular mayhem, an extensive origin story (told through flashbacks), a melodramatic dream sequence, random new characters, old personalities returning from the dead, and a lack of respect for any and all rules of physics.
If you live for Vin Diesel‘s Dominic Toretto and his merry band of globetrotting gearheads, that all probably sounds like cinematic nirvana – and, granted, it is a blast to see on a big screen. This international adventure on steroids, nitrous and Red Bull doesn’t exactly make for the most cohesive narrative, however.
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Directed by series stalwart Justin Lin, “F9” begins with Dom living off the grid with his son Little Brian (named for the late Paul Walker’s “Fast” character) and girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), retired from regularly saving the world. Old teammates Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), as well as tech expert Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), arrive with the news that a plane carrying notorious hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron, returning from “The Fate of the Furious”) went down in Central America and they need Dom’s help.
The big lug balks at first, not wanting to get back in the game even for his “family,” though reconsiders when he finds out his forsaken little brother, rogue superspy Jakob (John Cena), is involved. An international race breaks out to track down the pieces of a high-tech device that could put the entire globe in danger, with Dom’s crew facing the triple threat of Jakob, Cipher and Eurotrash wannabe dictator Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen).
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Yes, it’s all a bit like a stacked episode of the 1980s “G.I. Joe” cartoon, but with more muscle shirts, insane magnets, “Star Wars” references, Cardi B cameos and cars swinging Tarzan-style across a wide crevice. Lin has pulled off some of the more unbelievable action sequences in previous “Fast” installments, and “F9” pulls out all the stops. (And seeing where this film goes, one has to wonder how you top it for “Fast 10”? Time travel and/or dinosaurs may be the only options.)
Another boost for the franchise is the addition of Jakob, giving Dom a different brotherly dynamic than Diesel had with Walker, the heart of so many past films. Little bro is as good a fighter and driver as Dom, though Dom was “the golden boy” and Jakob “the useless one” growing up. Their backstory – and the tragedy that broke them apart – is revealed throughout “F9” in a parallel storyline that starts well but grows tedious.
Then again, “F9” is pretty much Subplots R Us. Many characters from past films show up, most notably the welcome return of Sung Kang’s presumed-dead Han, with plenty of “Fast” rookie introductions like female ninja Elle (Anna Sawai). A positive about the movie’s 145-minute length is that Lin carves out time for character moments: Letty and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) have a heart-to-heart at a Tokyo cafe (thereby helping “F9” pass the Bechdel test), and Roman wonders if they’re actually invincible in the most self-aware conversation in “Fast” history.
These movies are best when marrying James Bond high jinks with their longtime emphasis on the strength of family, plus a serving of macho philosophy on the side. “F9” tries to goose that template exponentially with soap opera and a greatest-hits package to craft the ultimate “Fast and Furious” movie, instead succeeding at making one that’s merely fine.