Ten films into the “The Fast Saga“, I have no idea how to evaluate individual movies in the franchise beyond noting how much fun I had while watching them. During the last entry, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, I didn’t have any fun at all despite seeing it in a theater full of braying strangers; the mood was sour & off-brand. During its pandemic era follow-up, F9, I had a moderate amount of fun watching a borrowed public-library DVD alone on my couch. F9 mostly offers more of the same from the decades-running action franchise, which has ballooned from street racing heist films to superhero fantasy epics that just happen have car engines revving in the background. In this outing, Dom’s gang/family drive over landmines, through weaponized magnetic fields and, inevitably, into outer space. I can’t tell how much my enthusiasm for these stunts was dampened by watching the film at home vs. how much it was dampened by feeling like I’ve seen it all before. All I know is that after the bitter taste left by Hobbs & Shaw‘s aggro-bro sense of humor, I’m now way more conscious of how these films generate their moodsetting comedy. As it turns out, it’s a lot more difficult to have fun when you’re thinking about whether or not you’re having it.
A lot of the straightforward, dialogue-based humor in F9 is pretty dire, but at least it’s delivered in a better spirit than Jason Statham & The Rock’s play-hateful banter. Its verbal comedy is typified by Ludacris’s computer nerd side-character making lazy pop culture references to fellow IP giants like Harry Potter, or by Michelle Rodriguez’s A-team hero quipping “Well, that was new” after Vin Diesel swings a sports car off a cliffside rope like an automotive Tarzan. Most of the fun to be had in these films relies on the visual absurdism of those impossible car stunts, which has gotten exponentially self-aware since the skyscraper jump in Furious 7 (my personal favorite in the series). They want to clearly signal that they realize it’s all in good fun by adding MCU-style one-liners to the script, but the series’ internal humor’s just not there yet. In that respect, F9‘s biggest blunder was in casting John Cena in a dead-serious villain role despite him being the funniest member of the cast (judging by his recent string of R-rated raunch comedies) while feeding its proper Jokes to dead-behind-the-eyes action stars like Vin Diesel. All longtime fans really want out of these movies is for Diesel to mumble the word “family” with outsized gravitas in-between Looney Tunes-level car stunts; he doesn’t need to land any bon mots.
To F9‘s credit, it does find a way to push its hack “Well, that just happened” MCU humor to new, absurd places. Roman (Tyrese Gibson) escalates that self-awareness of the improbability of his family/gang’s superheroism by pausing to remark “We should all be dead.” After dodging machine-gun fire, landmine explosions, and physics-defying car wrecks, he desperately tries to spread his self-aware epiphany to the rest of the crew. He points out how out of control the street racing gang’s “insane missions” have gotten, declaring their continued existence on Earth “damn near impossible”. I wish he had pushed that line of thinking a little further beyond “We are not normal” to realizing that he must be a fictional character in a Hollywood action franchise. At least that post-Last Action Hero meta narrative would’ve landed as a novelty in a series where the only other frontiers they haven’t yet explored are time travel & dinosaurs. Give them enough time, and I’m sure they’ll get there. After all, launching Ludacris & Tyrese into space is already lightyears away from the gang’s first-movie mission of stealing DVD players out of 18-wheelers.
If I had to narrow down Roman’s “We’re invincible” epiphany to a more specific observation, it’s that the Fast & Furious family appear to be invincible as long as they fall on a car instead of the ground. There are multiple stunts in this film in which an actor (or a CG blur standing in for an actor) flies through the air while their partner rushes towards them in a car, making sure they land on the hood instead of the concrete below. Apparently, that three-foot difference is enough to save the day in this loopy-logic action series (and even if it weren’t, fan-favorite characters frequently return from the dead anyway). That’s the kind of inane bullshit that makes this series fun, and the more you can focus on those cheap thrills instead of the halfhearted one-liners the happier you can drive away. I do think it helps to watch these films in the theater, where the rumble of car engines helps drown out the whimpers of dialogue, but Hobbs & Shaw is proof that watching these action blockbusters big & loud isn’t enough to cover up their worst attempts at straightforward humor. Thankfully, F9 is still a lot of goofball fun when it lets the cars do the talking.