I have never understood the naming conventions of the Fast & Furious films. In the USA this ninth instalment is titled F9: The Fast Saga, whereas here in Australia it has been released as the much more sensible Fast & Furious 9. Similar differences in title go back to Fast 5/Fast & Furious 5. Who knows why, but I apologise to American readers who are feeling a little confused.
The new film picks up a few years after the last, with Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) settling uncomfortably into a life in hiding, of parenthood, and middle age. When an aeroplane carrying the international criminal Cypher (Charlize Theron) is attacked and downed, they are dragged back into a fresh race around the world to stop Dom’s entranged brother Jakob (John Cena) from stealing a devastating super-weapon.
We need to have a serious talk about Fast & Furious. This is the ninth film of a series that is celebrating its 20th anniversary, not including a 2019 spin-off, and it has become Universal’s crown jewel franchise with a cumulative box office haul exceeding six billion dollars. That represents an enormous popular success thanks to a combination of genre (there’s not a film market in the world that hates action flicks), production values (each instalment currently costs more than $200m to produce), and diversity (for which it genuinely deserves a world of praise).
Another aspect of its long-term success is a willingness to re-invent itself. Its origins as a street racing variant of Point Break (1991) lasted for two sequels before it re-emerged as a series of heist thrillers that segued into precisely the kind of over-the-top espionage films that Vin Diesel had attempted with xXx (2002). Now that format feels as if it has comprehensively run its course, and if Fast & Furious 9 is any indication it will need another re-invention to last to its already-contracted 10th and 11th instalments. If you have enjoyed the franchise to this point, you will likely enjoy this enough to warrant seeing it. Despite that, there is a definite case of diminishing returns in play.
Script and story quality have never been selling points of Fast & Furious, but rather a price paid to enjoy the ridiculous and pleasing action and chase sequences. The scale has increased film on film as well, encouraging audiences to see each sequel so as to discover each subsequent example of on-screen excess. There is a problem with that approach: after Dom and his gang have engaged in a car chase in the Arctic circle against a nuclear submarine in The Fate of the Furious, well, it is kind of difficult to top that. Director Justin Lin tries his hardest, but everything feels reheated or recycled. The arrival of Jakob Toretto on the scene should bring a personal element to the conflict, except that a Toretto betraying their family is precisely what drove the eighth film. Having a presumed-dead character turning up alive and well should be a great shock, except that this trick was pulled on the audience in the sixth film. We can all put up with the silliness and stupidity of the stories so long as they lead to exhilarating and funny action scenes, but when those scenes lose their glossy appeal it is difficult to justify continuing the series at all.
One significant improvement in F9 is the greater and more pro-active use of its female characters. Michelle Rodriguez has consistently been the franchise’s strongest and most underrated asset, and she gets much more to do here. This additional support also extends to her returning co-stars Jordana Brewster (as Mia Toretto) and Nathalie Emmanuel (as Ramsay).
The ongoing commercial success of Fast & Furious pretty much guarantees this ride will stretch on via sequels and spin-offs for years to come. It does feel like a phenomenon that has peaked though. It is beginning to feel middle-aged.