To a non-fan, movies like F9 are more interesting as objects within a marketplace than fictional narratives or performance pieces. And I say “movie” because that’s what this is, as opposed to a “film”. For me, a film is a work of art, but a movie is a bombastic thrill-ride. Some can be both, like The French Connection (1971) or Star Wars (1977), but the Fast & Furious saga are movies with a capital M.
These nine movies have the the arbitrarily twisting plot of a soap opera and almost fetishised caricatures of pulp fiction. John Cena and Charlize Theron look like what people in these movies essentially are: poseable action figures. Cena’s lantern jaw, dimpled chin, and meaty biceps make him look like he was grown in a laboratory specifically for F9, while Theron’s Victoria Wood-style bowl-cut and red-leather trousers with black tank-top ensemble give her a tomboyish aspect. (And so the gender tropes of pulp survive, even in an age when entertainment is highly politicised. They’re just more subtle now.)
The plot is the usual pseudo-spy-movie stuff. Everyone wants the MacGuffin (which in this case is a device which has the power to control all technology on the planet), and there are crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and probably a few quadruple-crosses I missed. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is back, with Cena playing his nefarious but well-meaning brother Jakob, while Theron returns as cyber terrorist called Cipher.
It’s hard to believe this is the same same actress who once played serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003), as Cipher is a cross between G.I Jane, Magneto, and a dominatrix. But these movies tend to attract prestige acting talent, as Dame Helen Mirren appears as the embarrassingly named Queenie. Gone are the days when blockbuster movies like F9 were churned out by either bargain-basement hacks or celebrity beefcakes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That performers who’ve won Academy Awards and played royalty are now guest stars in car chase flicks is funny to me. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. It’s a big cheque for relatively little work, from the actor’s perspective (as Theron spends much of the movie either in a glass prison or seated at a computer), and it’s probably quite fun to be on set. You don’t have some Kubrickian auteur screaming abuse in your face, there’s no need to work on the “nuances” of your character, and you get to play superhero make-believe for weeks.
From a studio’s perspective, however, spending the money it takes to hire Oscar-winning divas seems like a needless expense, as it’s not like audience for The Queen (2006) and Monster are going to see a noisy corporate mega-product just because it features an actor they like. Then again, these actors do add an element of fun to proceedings. Their roles are usually comical and play with their public image. Theron gets an amusingly nerdy back-and-forth about Star Wars with a fellow villain, and as this is pulp the dialogue’s filled with camp, theatrical repartee and pronouncements. It’s good that the film makes clear that Diesel and Cena’s characters are brothers, because otherwise their constant verbal sparring would come across as homoerotic. (“I spent my entire life in your shadow” says Cena, close enough to lick Diesel’s stubble. “And now, you have to spend the rest of yours living in mine.” That’s one way to metaphorise a fractious top/bottom relationship. It could have been almost as juicy as the wingman dialogue in Top Gun (1986). But, again, brothers.)
It may seem I’m avoiding talking about the movie as an experience and focusing on surface details. Perhaps what readers of a F9 review really want is to know what the stunts and actions are like. Well, I didn’t dislike it wasn’t bored by it, but nothing thrilled me. I focused on the funny dialogue, bizarre casting choices, and the marketing techniques, because a product like F9 interests me for what it is, not what it contains.
What it contains isn’t bad, however, and my favourite bits didn’t involve bombastic action so much as comedy. By now the series knows how ridiculous it is. How could it not? It’s like a self-aware Saturday morning cartoon that some insane executive pumped millions of dollars into making. What’s funny is that the series started as a heist movie about drag racers stealing DVD players. Since then, the small-time crooks of Los Angeles have become jet-setting secret agents, with technology so advanced it makes the precognition software in Minority Report (2002) look like a Victorian telegram system. At one point, in the most ludicrous scene this side of an outright parody, two guys go to space in a souped-up car attached to a rocket. “No-one’s going to believe us” one observes. He’s right!
The action looks good and the fight choreography’s certainly balletic, to use the adjective reserved for well-done fight choreography. It’s hard to tell if the action is standout because most things are achieved digitally using computers… so it’s all much of a muchness. When I look at a giant magnetic car careen down a busy street, demolishing sidewalk cafes and ripping metal vaults out of stores, I’m thinking less about the story and more about how many people would be dead and disabled if any of this really happened. But then, a film about a sassy young spy lady (who drives said car) dealing with trauma and guilt over the innocent people she killed while saving the world isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. The lack of realism in what’s shown is so extreme it becomes comedic. I was chuckling happily as Diesel chased Jakob Toretto out a window and across the rooves of moving vehicles, making judgement calls no human could reasonably make. (I was close to a full-on belly laugh when Diesel jumped out of a window and grabbed onto the roof of a passing lorry as easily as stepping off a train.)
Let’s be honest, at this point these people aren’t underworld hoodlums, drag racers, thieves, or even secret agents. They’re superheroes. And as a stealth superhero movie, F9 is funnier and furious-er than a lot of the slop that gets ladled out.
USA • THAILAND • CANADA | 2021 | 143 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Justin Lin.
writers: Daniel Casey & Justin Lin (story by Justin Lin, Alfredo Botello & Daniel Casey, and characters created by Gary Scott Thompson).
starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, John Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell & Charlize Theron.