The first “Fast and Furious” movie was about a group of amateur crooks stealing DVD players from a truck. Nine installments later, those crooks have turned into a Corona beer-loving family able to prevent worldwide annihilation every few years (your move, Avengers).
Clearly, the franchise refuses to return to its grounded roots, striving to make each addition bigger than the last one. Justin Lin (“Fast and Furious,” “Fast and Furious 6”) directs “F9” — the most ambitious “Fast” film yet — as if it’s a brand-new Ferrari.
Unfortunately, this is no Ferrari, it’s a Toyota Camry — an average vehicle that gets the job done but lacks the speed to keep up with “Fast Five” or “Furious 7.”
The movie opens in 1989 where tragedy befalls young Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vinnie Bennett) and brother Jakob (Finn Cole) on the pit crew of their father’s racing team, causing a lifelong rift between the two. In the present, an older Dom (Vin Diesel) is happily retired with his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and son Brian (Isaac Holtane).
Retirement is short-lived as Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) arrive at the Toretto household with bad news: after capturing cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) has crash-landed in Central America, losing one half of a device capable of hacking into any weapons system in the world.
The rest of the film is a standard MacGuffin plot with Dom’s crew — featuring old franchise favorites, Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Han (Sung Kang) — going up against Jakob (John Cena) to find the second half of the device known as Project Ares.
Lin fumbles the execution in the Dom versus Jakob storyline. The 1989 flashbacks belong in a soapy teen drama from the early 2000s and slow down this 145-minute journey. It doesn’t help that the Project Ares plot is uninteresting, confusing and redundant of the threats from the last two “Fast” movies. There’s no need to supplant the brotherly rivalry with an incoherent MacGuffin plot.
Perhaps the biggest mistake Lin made was casting Cena as Jakob.
Cena is miscast in a dull and boring performance. He’s expressionless and given the most predictable character arc, leaving Jakob as one of the weakest villains this franchise has to offer. Cena has shown to be effective in comedic roles and Lin never thinks to give Jakob a funny line.
On top of it, Diesel and Cena have no chemistry — at no point does the viewer ever believe these men are brothers. “Fast Five” took the franchise to a new level because the makers found a worthy adversary to Dom in Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). The Rock isn’t a great actor, but his charm and comedic timing elevated each “Fast” movie he was in. He’s sorely missed in this movie.
Diesel hasn’t changed his performance since the first movie and is fine in this one. Rodriguez shines in the action scenes. Bridges, Gibson and Emmanuel are responsible for comic relief and get a few laughs with a recurring meta gag. It’s nice to see Brewster back as Mia Toretto and the always cool Kang will excite die-hard fans in his triumphant return as Han.
Special shoutout to Theron (“Monster,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) and Helen Mirren (“The Queen,” “Hobbs and Shaw”) who have short appearances, stealing every scene they’re in. An underused Mirren finally gets behind the wheel and shows Dom who the boss is in a hilarious car chase against the London police.
The film doesn’t disappoint when it comes to action. Lin’s grand vision translates well in most of the set pieces. The climactic sequence is thrilling and takes this franchise to new heights in absurdity and entertainment — literally, there’s a Pontiac with a rocket in space. As enjoyable as the climax is, it’s not as good as a fight in Tokyo featuring Letty and Mia.
This scene should be the blueprint of what the action should look like in forthcoming installments. Here, the women have no cars or gadgetry. It’s all hand-to-hand combat (with some pots and pans), reminiscent of the action in “John Wick.” These movies don’t need an elaborate set piece to impress the audience — all it takes is good action choreography.
When this film submits itself to the action, it’s fun and electric. As soon as Project Ares becomes the focus, it starts to sputter. The latest entry in this franchise isn’t the worst nor is it the best — it’s somewhere in the middle. Like “Fast and Furious 6,” this is an average action flick bogged down by an uninteresting plot.
We’ll see the Torettos again. Let’s hope for less Cena, more Mirren and no MacGuffin in sight.
“F9,” rated PG-13, is now playing in theaters.