Is it too far-fetched to hope that the Fast & Furious movies could go back to being about hot cars, burning rubber and the bonding that occurs somewhere around the intersection of cops and robbers? This is a series that began with a crew of not-so-bad crooks stealing shipments of DVD players; now, in Justin Lin’s F9, they’re literally shooting cars into space. Unless FasTen involves time travel, it’s hard to see how this franchise could top itself, and based on the often dull, always bloated results here, it seems foolish to try.
At their best, these later, save-the-world Fast flicks have allowed viewers to thrill to stunts even as they guffawed at their absurdity. But in F9’s would-be showstoppers, the thrills are mostly AWOL or the feats are simply too idiotic to embrace, even guiltily.
See, for instance, the sequence in which our heroes are being pursued across a minefield — they don’t get killed because they’re just too damned fast for exploding mines to injure them — toward a rickety rope bridge. One side of the bridge breaks when the first car has just started to cross it, but the car gets to the other side by following the same laws of physics that govern Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons. Then Vin Diesel’s Dom, seeing that a single suspension strand remains of what used to be a bridge, somehow jumps his car onto the post holding that strand, knocks it free from the ground, and Tarzans across the chasm to land on the other side. For a series with a main character (Ludacris’ Tej) who routinely urges his buddies to trust in math and physics because Numbers Don’t Lie, Fast really insults any viewer who feels the same way.
Fans may remember, in the last film, the EMP weapon that could knock out every bit of electronics in a high-security military facility while somehow not interfering with the video monitor sitting right next to it. This time around, our heroes head into a chase with arrays of electromagnets in their trunks that are powerful enough to pull heavy trucks across lanes of traffic, or even flip an armored truck the size of a train car end-over-end. But somehow, those magnets have no effect on the axles, gearshifts and made-in-the-’70s steel frames of the muscle cars carrying them.
This probably sounds like more fun than it is. As in Lin’s last feature, the disappointing Star Trek Beyond, the director/co-writer takes a quantity-over-quality approach, throwing more action, subplots and characters into the mix than any movie needs while still leaving one with the sense that something’s missing. The maximalist strategy makes even less sense considering the simple idea at this episode’s heart: Dom has a brother his pals don’t know about; a tragedy in their youth separated them; and now he’s a bad guy.
Why that brother, Jacob (John Cena), has to be a Bond-level villain is anybody’s guess. Producer-star Diesel’s heart is clearly with the themes of family that run through FF from episode one. The series’ soap-opera tendencies can lend themselves to fun crime-picture tropes, as when heroes turn against their loved ones for mysterious reasons, only to prove their loyalty in the end. But this new Dom/Jacob crisis is sufficient in itself, and does not require the introduction of a device that can take over every other electronic device on the planet.
Jacob, we’ll learn, was their father’s second-favorite son. Both boys worked on their dad’s racing crew, and we watch multiple flashbacks to the day he died, in a wreck seemingly caused by an aggressive competitor. That death cast a long shadow, the details of which needn’t be revealed here; but Jacob vanished not long afterward, and seems eventually to have turned his hurt feelings into a desire for world domination. (Though the film makes Cena a supervillain, it doesn’t let him upstage Diesel as Cena’s fellow ex-wrassler Dwayne Johnson, absent here, did in previous outings. The charm Cena showed in Blockers and Trainwreck does not blip on the radar here, lest it interfere with Diesel’s signature, leaden acting style.)
Jacob’s arrival as a threat to world peace requires Dom and new wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to leave the farm they’ve retired to. They reunite with Tej, Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and the implausibly gifted hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) when a distress message from Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) leads to a wrecked plane containing half of a device that could be used to rule the world.
Soon Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) has joined the action. On the evil side of the ledger, Jacob and his Eurotrash partner Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) have captured the previous film’s criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), putting her in a plexiglass-walled cell so she can taunt them with her superior intellect. Other players from earlier films will appear, some more meaningfully than others, but why ruin the surprise?
The script — not penned by series regular Chris Morgan, but sporting dialogue just as flat as usual — takes us to more exotic locations than we’d expect from a Mission: Impossible film, sometimes barely staying in one spot much longer than it takes to ask, “Remind me what country Montequinto is in?” It sets Dom’s crew in a race to find the other half of that world-controlling weapon before Thanos — I mean, Jacob — does, and, when they fail, it asks them to stop Jacob before he can power it up. That’s where the space travel comes in, and really, the less said about that, the better. Suffice it to say that the car jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper to skyscraper in Furious 7 was a lot more fun.
And, not that anyone cares, but it was more believable as well.