If you stop and think about it, it is truly incredible how much mileage Universal’s “Fast & Furious” franchise has gotten out of “killing off” a single character. I put the term in scare quotes because, if nothing else, “F9” the ‘Fast Saga’s” tenth installment—following the egregious “Hobbs & Shaw” and a pair of disappointing sequels to the franchise’s strongest entry, “Furious 6 & The Infinite Runway” (okay, so I added the subtitle)—confirms that the Toretto Crew has entered blockbuster immortality orbit. Returning to the series after taking the reigns of ‘Star Trek’s’ Kelvin-verse for its third installment, “Star Trek: Beyond,” director Justin Lin restores the cartoon physics qualities he reinvigorated the franchise with for its fifth chapter, “Fast Five,” once again resurrecting a fan favorite character he “killed off” two movies prior.
Talking about these movies with a straight face to anyone for 5 minutes should make clear: if you are trying to pinpoint any logistical problems with the creative approach or stunt work of Lin’s Hollywood blockbusters, you’re doing it wrong—like the last 2 guys they gave the keys of Universal’s car kingdom to. Unlike a Michael Bay, Lin infuses world cinema inspired genre aesthetic into the very fabric of his story framework, taking cues from American movie classics and Hong Kong cinema, giving his daredevil gearhead (a growly Vin Diesel) an apropos Matt Murdock secret origin story, culminating these ideas via a cross-continental hybrid of spy-movie telenovela and soap opera wrestling feud.
That’s right, wisely, Lin has doubled down on his inspired casting of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (sadly sidelined from the main series at the moment given his infamous spat with franchise lead, Diesel) by giving Dominic Toretto a long-lost brother in the form of a leaner, meaner, John Cena (named Jakob, with a “k”). Apparently, Jakob has long been a master thief/super assassin (because, of course he has) and Dom made the mistake of entering his world 5 movies ago, after being banished from the Echo Park scene by his brother (not going to ruin why, that’s what the flashbacks are for, people). Clearly, the boy scout wrestling champ was cast more for his jawline prowess and less so for his charisma, but considering Diesel’s limited performance skillset, their macho moments of strong, silent, overcompensation play pitch perfectly (one envious twitch of Jakob’s eyes is pure cornball magic, as is a birds-eye-view John Woo, muscle car stand-off where winged creatures fly across the screen diagonally).
But what about the actual plot, you say? Well, there’s a macguffin—a two-part macguffin (in fact) that can’t be unlocked without another macguffin; one involving a previously thought to be deceased fan favorite. Dom’s crew receive a distress call from the enigmatic Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, mercifully less present in this installment, and possibly killed off-screen) whose plane has been shot down in Montecito, where the villainess Cipher (Charlize Theron, thankfully not around much either, and spending most of the flick monologuing in a glass box) escapes. Why should Dom care, you say? Well, he doesn’t. At first. Until he notices a certain cross that no amount of time or distance could wipe from his bruised psyche. The cross belongs to Jakob (of course). Soon, Dom’s crew find themselves scattered to different corners of the globe, attempting to thwart Dom’s damaged brother’s plans of stepping out of the former Street King’s shadow.
Honestly, that’s all you need to know. Just grab a soda, your favorite spot in the theater, and strap in for a stupid-fun ride, the movie almost immediately entering ‘Lost World’ territory through Pacific Coast cliffsides and off-road vehicles racing through tropical mine fields. By the time Jakob shows up with a magnetic spy-plane, narrative critical thinking flies out the airlock.
Most all of the franchise’s former players are back (save for Paul Walker, whose presence nonetheless remains immortal, and those relegated to “Hobbs & Shaw”) but obviously, most fans of the series really only want to see one thing: the return of Han (Sung Kang) teased in the epic trailer released before the film was delayed due to COVID-19. Much has been written about the fan campaign to provide Justice for the franchise’s Asian American tentpole—it’s arguable the series would have long ago died without Han’s death being regurgitated so many times—and, while his role isn’t massive, it’s majorly satisfying, Lin coming up with a cleverly circuitous route explaining how that 15 year old car explosion did not end his life.
What’s most surprising perhaps, is the way Lin parallels this narrative with his flashback structure, finally revealing Dom’s wrench assault origin that landed him a prison sentence. Who was ultimately responsibly for taking away a key member of Dom’s family forms the heart of Lin’s film. It’s sincerely and simplistically endearing in a way perfectly befitting for this soap opera, spy-epic. What else could one want from the Fast Cars & Family franchise?
Though many American audiences will be unfamiliar with this comparison, for lovers of Asian World Cinema and all its aesthetic excess, “F9” might be the closest a $200 Million Hollywood Blockbuster comes to going almost full Hong Kong cinema, veering close to “The Wandering Earth” level hodgepodge lunacy at times. Somehow, Lin has turned a series that was one about street racing into a multi-generational action-art opera: a worldwide pay-per-view entertainment event by way of tankōbon-lite serialized franchise building. If one looks at the continued evolution of a Shonen property such as “Dragon Ball,” (and let’s be honest, these movies were first made for teenage car bros in the early 2000s) the approach to character evolution is one in the same. Virtually every character can be wished back to life, and most all villains end up redeemed in some capacity. If you were to ask the 12-year-old in me if I would like to see Frieza or Android 17 fight alongside Goku or Trunks (in a team-up!) I’d look at you like you were crazy. Yet here we are; it happened and it was epic. If you were to tell me when “Fast Five” came out that John Cena would be the bad guy 4 movies later, I’d give you a similar side eye. Now all I want is for Jakob to give Hobbs an Attitude Adjustment before the franchise calls it quits. That’s entertainment, folks.
“F9” opens in theaters June 25