As F9 clanked and sputtered for 145 minutes, like a chicken bone in a garbage disposal, I kept thinking about the phrase, “jumping the shark.” For anyone unfamiliar, it describes a scene from Happy Days, in which a leather-clad Fonzie water-skis over a shark fin. This moment has entered the pop culture vernacular as an indication when a TV show or movie franchise starts going down the proverbial tubes.
Unfortunately, it also presents me with a conundrum: These recent Fast and Furious movies don’t so much jump the shark as rocket over it and into the stratosphere, all while bedecked in a spangly outfit and a jetpack. F9 represents the apogee of this daredevil attitude toward the laws of physics and what constitutes good taste. It isn’t just stupid. It is ferociously and unapologetically stupid. At the same time, the movie wears this idiocy with some kind of casual confidence, like a pair of faded, mustard-stained Levis. So, how can I knock a movie that does exactly what it sets out to do?
We’ll touch on that again later. For now, let’s take a look at the film’s sprawling plot. (There may be some spoilers, so you haven’t seen the previous eight movies in this cinematic boondoggle, get in your Shelby Fastback and turn around.) After the events of Fate of the Furious, Dominic (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have settled down to raise Dom’s son, Brian. However, unbeknownst to our heroes, some ornery screenwriters are twiddling their mustaches and conspiring to force Dom and Letty back into a life of incoherent car chases and backyard barbecues.
It seems that Cipher (Charlize Theron), their nemesis from the previous installment, is in cahoots with Jakob (John Cena), a burly superspy with a real mean streak. Y’all wanna hear something real spicy? Jakob is also Dom’s little brother! Wait–what the frickity-frack?? We’re nine movies in, and the filmmakers are serving up this horse puckey? Anyway, Jakob and Dom have a checkered past, and the former has used this sibling rivalry as motivation to become a world-killing supervillain.
Naturally, Jakob is on the hunt for some high-tech MacGuffin that can take over the world’s satellites and do some, you know, bad stuff. That means that Dom must assemble his plucky squad of drag-racing rapscallions to save the world again. But this time….it’s personal. Again.
If you’ve ridden on this cacophonous merry-go-round before, you should know what to expect from here: Preposterous car chases. Choppily edited fight scenes. Vin Diesel clenching his jaw and growling about family. John Cena clenching his jaw and growling about family. Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson exchanging dialogue so goofy it makes Con Air sound like King Lear. Cervezas and burgers in the backyard. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And here’s the thing: Fans of the previous movies might find enough here to quench their Fast and Furious thirst. Veteran director Justin Wan knows how to stage wacky action scenes, while giving his audience a self-assured wink. On top of that, the film supplies Tyrese with some meta dialogue about how aggressively silly these films are. His character asks my questions for me: How do these characters survive these situations in movie after movie? Why do they never have a scratch on them?
That might be the most refreshing thing about this film: Lin balances F9‘s trademark self-seriousness with an acknowledgment that this is all, in fact, ridiculous. It’s like a squeeze of lime after a tequila shot. As a result, I didn’t loathe this film as much I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not a fan. I just didn’t need to be soaked with a garden hose when it was over.
Still, something’s missing. Or, someone is. And it can’t be helped. Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor supplied this franchise with much of its emotional grounding, especially in his relationship with Mia (Jordana Brewster). For a series this unabashedly over the top, Walker’s presence was absolutely crucial. As a result, every installment since his passing has felt spiritually hollow.
To fill that void, the filmmakers have poured in action scenes right out of Looney Tunes. Fate featured glaciers and submarines. This sum’bitch sends a modified race car into outer space. No, I’m not making that up. I know these movies aren’t supposed to be within ten miles of realism, but this is just eye-rolling lunacy. Maybe that amounts to hurtling a shark fin. Of course, maybe jumping the shark is exactly what this franchise does best.
145 min. PG-13.