F9 Is a Blast, Until Melodrama Drags It Back to Earth
There is a brief scene in F9—the latest installment in the Fast and Furious film series, opening on June 25—that I have not been able to shake since seeing it. It’s a quick shot of our macho-sentimental hero, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), regarding the ruins of a race track where he first cut his teeth as a lover of cars, an adept driver, and I guess eventual world-saving superhero. There Diesel is, now 53 years old, in the familiar—but somehow glammed up—Dom regalia: tight but not too tight jeans, shirt with the sleeves cut off, and work boots with the faintest of lifts in the heel.
It’s a striking image, this icon regarding his own past, this film series so steeped in its own legend that it’s almost become drag, a costumed pastiche of what it used to be in unmannered terms. F9—directed by series mainstay Justin Lin, written by Lin and Daniel Casey—strenuously loops back to the franchise’s primal history, fleshing out an origin story murmured about in the first film while tying in a brand new character as if he was always there, hanging in the F&F world’s periphery. That invention and reinvention of lore nearly pushes the series into the realm of religious tradition, a myth cycle reshaped in its retelling but ever observant of its core tenets, its key moral lessons and immortal struggles.
Or something? What I mean to say is, there is something strange and grandiose about this latest F&F film, a doubling down—and doubling up?—on the series’s expansive self-regard. It’s evidenced in the backstory involving young Dom (Vinnie Bennett, not much younger than Diesel was in the first film, oddly enough) and his estranged brother, Jakob (Michael Cena), who was ostracized by the family—the gravest thing that can be done in this world—after a tragedy. Dom is meant to be reckoning with guilt and grief and the impossible weight of lost time. Diesel doesn’t do much to show that, his face an unmoving slab, his laconic growl giving away little. But the movie swirls and swells around him to indicate big emotion—there is even a scene that is something like a near-death, astral projection reverie, the F&F series finally creeping toward the divine or supernatural as it probably was always going to do.
The action is also an escalation, though done more tastefully than the garish submarine nonsense of the last film, F8 of the Furious. As was first joked about, then seriouslyspeculated about, and then confirmed, F9 does slip the surly bonds of Earth and head into space. But only for a short interlude done with a reverence and awe that approaches something like poignance, as the two characters who get to go on the journey remark upon how far—literally and figuratively—they have traveled in their miraculous lives.
Elsewhere, magnets feature prominently and amusingly, as if this series has been listening to the earnest wonderings of the Juggalos and are, at long last, paying homage. The chases and fight scenes are fun, if repetitive, and each member of the diverse and affable cast gets a little bit of business to do. Which is pretty much business as usual for the series.
But F9’s attempts at classical drama, all its reckoning with dynastic sin, do weigh the thing down quite a bit. Those going to the theater simply for the kicky, bad-joke, MacGuffin charms of F&F may find themselves a little bored and distracted, as I was, by all the turgidity. How invested in the serious tenor of Dom’s community are we really? The genuinely stirring send-off to the late Paul Walker, and his character, Brian, in the seventh film was tied to something big, and discrete, and it worked because of that. But otherwise, the series’s sappy tendencies are best left as little bookend buttons—hugs of reunion followed by raucous action, then closed out with yet another Corona-soaked backyard barbecue to remind us of this clan’s rich bond. (The chosen family theme has become so pronounced in this series it’s almost become queer allegory—if only the film series would actually incorporate queerness in any literal way.)
When the pathos takes center stage as often as it does in F9, it all starts to feel like a chore, one that bizarrely pushes a proudly unpretentious series towards the opposite. I’m sure plenty of fans out there are, in fact, deeply invested in the psychological mapping of Dom Toretto and his crew. F9 ought to play just fine for them. But I found myself newly worrying about what will be left to cover in the series’s final two films (or, allegedly, the final two starring Diesel and this main cast), given how much hefty material F9 throws around. There are distinct moments in this film when I began to fear that we may one day see Dom—un-sleeved arms nailed to a cross, Timberlands bloodied—nobly dying to redeem this fast and furious world of ours.
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Published at Wed, 23 Jun 2021 18:33:07 +0000