About halfway through F9, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), the franchise’s fall guy and icebreaker, asks his car buddies, “Are we special?” He poses this question because at this point in the history of the car franchise, his former street-racer friends have: Stolen a building-sized safe in a high-speed chase; stopped multiple nuclear and technological apocalypses; survived countless shootouts; butted heads with the covert agents of the world’s governments; broken every imaginable law; driven up the side of a literal cliff; outraced a field of landmines; skydived into a spy plane; and outwitted cyber-hackers while driving on top a submarine. “Don’t even mention the submarine,” he adds at the end of his meandering rant, after which he poses the truth that not very many of the crew has died, and they don’t have any scratches on them. Perhaps the gang is special!
Tej Parker (Ludacris) and relative newcomer Ramsey (Game of Thrones alum Nathalie Emmanuel) laugh in his face and say his delusions of grandeur are misguided. Walking out of the AMC in West Hollywood two hours later, though, I thought maybe Roman was onto something.
This post contains spoilers.
F9 is unbelievably the franchise’s ninth mainline installment, not counting the Hobbes & Shaw spinoff series. It began as a humble racing movie all the way back in 2001, pre-dating even the now endless Marvel Cinematic Universe. Only three of the original four cast members have made it to see the ninth film come to fruition, after Paul Walker’s tragic death in 2013: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster. (Newcomer Cardi B is here too, as the leader of a girl gang, but she gets about 10 seconds of screen time.) In fact, F9 is a family reunion of sorts, reuniting all three for the first time in a proper heist since Fast 6. (Brewster’s Mia Toretto took the next two films off to focus on raising her kid with Walker’s Brian.) Beyond Mia, even more of the gang is back. The characters from the semi-spinoff The Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift involve themselves directly in the gang’s latest exploits. Even the legendary Han (Sung Kang) is back from the dead! (His death is explained away as an act of conspiracy. Just go with it.)
I stress this all because, more than any other movie in the 20-year history of Fast & Furious, F9 is a truly monumental undertaking. It weaves in the histories and lives of every character involved in the nine films to this point, while finally book-ending the “Toretto” saga, as we will call it, centered squarely on Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, the man who started it all. Once a humble if egotistical mechanic, Toretto has slowly transformed into an internationally wanted CIA operative, thief, and general muscleman. His once-small crew has grown to involve world-renowned hackers, drivers, spies, government agents, and even a few villains. And, for the first time ever, F9 introduces a long-lost brother, Jakob, played by fellow muscleman John Cena. Coincidentally, Jakob is also in the terrorism business, driven to seek power and wealth after he was exiled by Dom for murdering their father in 1989, 30 years before their reunion in a field of landmines, both after the same technological weapon capable of leveling the world’s governments.
Do you follow?
Let me attempt to explain the basic premise of F9: Dom and partner Letty have retired to a farm, to raise a kid. Their peace is interrupted by Roman, Tej, and Ramsey, who say they’ve received an encrypted transmission from their CIA contact, Mr. Nobody, after he crash-landed somewhere in a Central American jungle. En route to said jungle, they’re joined by Mia, who says she’s tired of sitting out the fun. That’s all the exposition needed, as soon, they’re racing down a cliffside in Montecito—Dom in a muscle car, Letty on motorcycle, Tej and Ramsey in a Jeep, and Roman in an armored tank. Where did they get them? It doesn’t really matter. When they get to Mr. Nobody’s coordinates, they discover a mysterious glowing object and are ambushed by an unknown paramilitary force, led by none other than Dom’s long-lost brother, who he’s never mentioned before. A chase through a field of landmines ensues, which ends with Letty and Dom using a rope bridge as a swing to get from one cliffside to the next. Of course, they don’t do this with silly things like their hands. Dom hits the nitrous oxide boost and slingshots the car about a half-mile across the open ocean, that flimsy little rope somehow carrying them to the next side. When they safely land, Letty says: “Well that was new.” Dom smirks. The rest of the movie only raises the stakes from there.
But nobody comes to the church of car movies for plot. They come for stunts, and theatrics, and comedic melodrama. F9 has more of that than I could previously imagine. Take those aforementioned landmines: Sure, they could blow a person into a million bloody pieces, but director Lin also sees them an excellent source of prop comedy. The villains, which include a mega-rich kid and returning mastermind Cipher, have an extended conversation about whether or not they are Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. (Cipher concludes the spoiled rich kid is Yoda, a puppet with a man’s hand up his ass.) At one point, the cast of Tokyo Drift is reintroduced for seemingly no reason, only to have it later revealed they can build a rocketship for Dom, and send the crew to space. Yep! The crew goes to fucking space, strapped into a dilapidated junker car with a rocket engine on top. There’s a particularly excellent moment where a CGI earth reflects in Tej and Roman’s helmets, which are made from 1950s army diver supplies. The whole theater erupted in screams, including me.
Quite honestly, I cried from pure joy. They did it. They sent the boys to space. One small step for Fast & Furious, one giant leap for the art of movie-making. The two later crash that car into a satellite and hitch a ride on a Russian space station after drifting aimlessly in space for a while.
Back on earth, Dom and the crew seize a super magnet from the bad guys, which they use in a high-speed chase with said bad guys. It was single-handedly the tensest and most incomprehensible action sequence I’ve ever witnessed. While the apocalypse satellite and our heroes hurtle into orbit, Dom and Co. use those magnets in a high-speed chase down an undisclosed location in Eastern Europe. They pull the bad guys and repel them. They flip cars and steal phones and dismantle entire buildings with the magnets, at one point using them to hitch rides on the train-sized armored vehicle the baddies are hiding out in. Halfway through, Jakob is betrayed by his baddie benefactor, who sends an assassin to murder him on top of that armored train. He and the beefy assassin fistfight at 40 miles an hour, at one point crashing through a steel highway off-ramp sign with their whole bodies, unscathed. Then comes Mia and Dom to the rescue, who offer Jakob an escape vehicle, which he uses to flip the armored train because family. Dom, who at some point got inside the armored train, runs from one end of it to the other as it rolls down a hill, like that one scene from Inception. He manages to jump off, blow it up, jump into another car, and then shoot that car at the other baddie’s magnetized spy plane, which blows up.
In all, the movie is incomprehensible in the best way, but it’s grounded by the very real melodrama at its core. Death, family, and lineage factor greatly into the plot, as ties are broken and reforged. It’s like Dynasty at 200 miles an hour with a nuclear bomb attached. Did I weep openly when Dom and Jakob reunite, or when Han returns from the dead? Absolutely, along with most other people in the theater. Sobs gave way to laughter, which racked my body until it was sore. At the climax I joined hands with a random stranger and jumped up and down along with everyone else. I’ve never had another theater experience like it, at least not one in which I willingly participated. After a year of so much unimaginable death and destruction in my own life and on the planet at large, this latest Fast & Furious felt like a release. I certainly won’t need therapy for a few months now that I’ve seen it.
Why, though? If I were to give it much thought—more thought than these movies need or deserve—I think it’s in the unabashed corniness and heart-wrenching displays of love and family bonds. I’m as shocked as everyone else is to hear me say this! These movies haven’t taught me how to love and laugh with a chosen family, not by any means, but they have illustrated, beneath all the submarines and rocket ships and terrorist organizations, why I do so despite everything else.
But this is still a popular movie franchise, after all. Fitting, then, that it ends on what is essentially a Corona ad. The gang cracks a cool one and enjoys the sunset over Echo Park. I don’t drink anymore, but I think I’ll do the same thing this weekend. Find somewhere it’s sunny, smoke a little with my friends, and remember how much good there still is left in this life.