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Dom (Vin Diesel) crouches on one knee as car debris blows up around him in F9 Image: Universal Pictures

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F9 pits the family against the ultimate threat: character development

Dom’s backstory? I’m fine, thanks.

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Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

With eight sequels, a spinoff movie, multiple video games, an adult coloring book, a Funko board game, and one animated Netflix series (featuring a Mr. Clean-like cartoon Vin Diesel) in the rearview mirror, Fast & Furious should be a fully formed cinematic universe in a spectacle-making groove. But F9 finds longtime series director Justin Lin doing doughnuts in the franchise parking lot.

The movie isn’t disastrous — Lin’s physics-defying set-pieces are more polished and giddy than anything in the CG cacophony of 2017’s The Fate of the Furious — but it is two and a half hours of action drama without momentum. And that’s on Dom, who’s doing a terrible job at keeping the family together.

[Ed. note: This review contains spoilers for F9.]

It’s shocking, nine movies in: Diesel, who has soared solo in ridiculous action vehicles like xXx, Riddick, and The Last Witch Hunter (yes, really!), struggles to bring his charisma to ensemble camaraderie, and his looming presence drags down F9’s thrills. On top of the franchise’s $6 billion box-office foundation, Lin and screenwriter Dan Casey (Kin) construct the biggest installment yet, sending each member of the family on their own mission to prevent “Project Ares,” the ultimate doomsday weapon. Unfortunately, they use the same space to build a monument to Dom, despite a multipronged story mostly keeping Diesel offscreen.

When he is around, F9 is the Dom Show, exploring his family history and reforging the ex-DVD-player-thief as a touched-by-the-gods Herculean hero. Not once does he feel like someone his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), or buddies Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) can rely on — or even look straight in the face. (Close your eyes, he’s too much man for the mere mortal mind to understand!) After 20 years of Fast films, Dom is a totally functional blockbuster superhero; he can swing a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat across a Central American chasm like he’s frickin’ Indianapolis 500 Jones. But hand him the floor for a family meeting, and he’s DOA.

Lin and Casey’s overinvestment in Diesel’s alter ego begins with the introduction of Dom’s lil’ bro Jakob Toretto (John Cena), the Cousin Oliver of the Fast franchise. Legend says, when Dom and Jakob were but baby-faced 20-somethings working the pit crew by day and Street Warring by night, they witnessed their father perish in a car accident, and Jakob was behind the sabotage that killed him. The brothers never saw each other again after Dom ran Jakob out of town — until the Fast franchise needed to Make. Things. Personal. Years later, with Dom and Letty living off the grid with Dom’s son, Jakob pops back up as the muscle for a bargain-bin Baron Zemo who hopes to hijack Project Ares and hold the world ransom. Though he vowed to stay out of the game, Dom wrangles his family yet again to stop his fam-nemy. It’s a stock setup, but through Lin’s bombastic, soap-opera lens, it feels like Ocean’s 11 with a hit of NOS.

Letty and Dom sit in a car with a broken windshield in F9 Image: Universal Pictures

Sturdy footing lets the Fast movie do what it needs to do, on some level. The cat-and-mouse game of stealing (and constantly re-stealing) Super High-Tech Glowing Computer Dongles whisks Dom’s team to a dense jungle, neon-lit back alleys of Tokyo, and populated streets of London. Each location fills Lin’s pockets with the currency of imagination, which he cashes in with absolute delight. Where previous installments built off the glory of The Italian Job, The French Connection, and Mad Max: Fury Road, F9 finds inspiration in the Harlem Globetrotters. The cars catch falling bystanders, flip over enemy off-roaders, and stage intricately choreographed attacks using amped-up magnets. This time around, we learn that team hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) doesn’t even know how to drive, but that’s OK, because the vehicles are basically Transformers, and Lin gives his automotive stars every money shot they deserve. Like Godzilla vs. Kong or The Lion King, F9 is nearly post-human entertainment. Nearly.

With Jakob in the mix, Lin and Casey decide the time is right to put the franchise in reverse and explore Dom’s origins. As our own Joshua Rivera pointed out with his early thoughts on F9, the Fast movies became somewhat unmoored after the death of co-star Paul Walker. While Furious 7 was shaped as a tribute, a bevy of cameos from old Fast actors padded the film and The Fate of the Furious, and proved there was really no replacement to the actual stars showing up — Diesel needed Walker’s energy.

Carving out Dom’s character through flashbacks reveals a vast emptiness in both the series’ Marvel-lite mythology and Diesel’s human capabilities. As young Dom and Jakob, actors Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole mimic the leads with confidence, but only have backdoor-pilot levels of drama to chew on. Lin is desperate to make this work, switching up the cinematography to imbue the ’80s setting with the grit of Ford v Ferrari, but the conflict lands like a brick. Evidently, after their dad’s death, there was a lot of screaming and a lot of racing. Go figure!

Just so the audience really really really gets it, the script winds through this territory twice: once as a series of proper flashbacks, and again when Dom faces a near-death experience. After CG Vin Diesel goes Full Hulk on a bunch of SWAT goons, Dom “drowns” in an underground bunker, floats toward the white light of death, recalls the fateful day when his dad died on the track, then immediately recovers so the fam can get back to smashing armored vehicles. It’s unclear whether Dom even had to dry off after climbing out of his watery would-be grave. Another superpower?

Dom (Vin DIesel) taking it as Jakob (John Cena) yells in his face in F9 Image: Universal Pictures

F9 counteracts any character development by devoting a grating amount of time to meta-commentary on its own ridiculousness. On this lap of the franchise, Roman confronts the existential nature of the family’s inability to be harmed. How do they never get shot? How do they survive every car crash? Have they been chosen? If these were the incoherent mutterings of a man in constant action, it might be the perfect seriousness-deflating banter to cap any given action set-piece. But there are entire dialogue-driven scenes unpacking the possible supernatural forces at work in the Fast franchise. If the asides are setup for the series’ eventual crossover with Diesel’s Last Witch Hunter universe (c’mon, it’s good!), then the film isn’t taking the magical element seriously enough. If it’s just comic relief, it’s padding that falls flat — but not as flat as the five-minute gag about which Star Wars character Charlize Theron’s villain Cipher would be, the moment F9 goes full cringe.

The self-awareness ultimately diminishes the return of Han (Sung Kang) to the series. The long-awaited undoing of the fan-favorite’s cheap post-credits death is as mispronounced as, well, his cheap post-credits death. Nothing matters, Roman basically explains throughout the film, so neither does Han stepping back into the light. Han explains, to a crowd of stone-faced “friends,” how he faked his own death to save himself and a girl, Elle (Anna Sawai), who is the key to unlocking Project Ares. Any emotional pang is caught in plot gobbledygook, which turns out to be a recurring interference.

By spreading the team out on different missions around the world, there’s not enough time to give anyone a meaningful arc — besides, you know, letting them drive faster than ever before — and every character moment feels like a half measure. Letty and Mia get a sweet moment at an izakaya before meeting up with Han, but their perspectives on life and love seem ripped from an eighth-grade diary. Lin and Casey know the audience wants to care about the family, but they can’t forge any kind of relationship between the actors. In one scene, Dom flops into a heavy-duty truck with Ramsey and Tej, and gives them a look like they’ve never met. Wait, have they? Even in scenes in which the family’s together in a room, everyone feels isolated, with King Dom holding court in his own close-up. There’s no history in the rhythms of this team. (And certainly nothing sparks with the addition of Cena, who is good at barking orders and sneering, but can’t build 30 years of character work from behind the wheel.)

I sat straight up in my seat one time during F9: when Tej, right before blasting through space to destroy the Project Ares satellite, imagined what his pals in his old neighborhood would think of him if they knew he was in frickin’ outer space. There was the seconds-spanning glimmer of reality I needed to think a guy’s life was on the line. No prolonged backstory plot necessary.

The bloat that makes this chapter unsuccessful has nothing to do with cartoon action — Lin gets it, and it’s often spectacular. It’s that, with Diesel’s Dom in the driver’s seat, F9 doesn’t choose a lane. The series’ highs, like Fast Five and Furious 7, had tight scripts that linked together actor-focused action sequences and successfully diverted attention from the fact that the Fast family wasn’t much more than one-liners and muscle.

The new movie dares to consider 2D caricatures as three-dimensional people, and in the process, exposes the charade. Diesel’s version of Dom is a purported family man without warmth or words of wisdom. He’s a super-spy without tactical advantage, or anything to sacrifice. Shakespearean tragedy doesn’t suit him. Getting alley-ooped by his long-lost brother in order to drive a sports car into a machine-gun-blasting drone as his wife skids by on a motorcycle does. In a way, Diesel as Dom is a lot like the cars in the movie: durable, shiny, and humming at 150 mph. We don’t really need or want to see him in park, or learn how he got off the showroom floor. Just ride or die — how many times does Letty have to say it?

F9 is now playing in theaters.

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