Joe’s Take

Twenty years ago, no one knew the “Fast and Furious” franchise would still exist. However, nine movies and a spinoff film later, the multi-billion dollar property is still alive. “F9: The Fast Saga” proved it still has places to go.

After the disappointing and unnecessarily dark “F8 of the Furious,” “F9” returns to the fun that makes this franchise so entertaining. The beginning scared me as the movie opens with a flashback of the day Dom’s father died. This worried me because I thought the film might keep its dark tone from the eighth installment and serve as a mostly serious movie. The flashbacks continue throughout the film to show the tension between Dom (Vin Diesel) and his brother Jakob (John Cena). The scenes work well to progress the story, and Vinnie Bennett, who plays young Dom, nails his mannerisms. There’s one point where he’s driving and he does an eyebrow raise and it looks just like Diesel. It’s a small part, but he does a really nice job with it. Even though the audience knows what happens in the opening flashback, as explained in the first film, the sequence proves beautifully shot and powerful.

The film then shifts to the present with a smaller crew than we’re used to, with Dom, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) going on the first mission. It doesn’t take too long to get them assembled, which the audience appreciates. No need to take a ton of time for the characters to decide to go on the mission when the viewers know they eventually will.

The chemistry among the crew is there immediately, almost like getting the family back together. Granted this should be easy for Diesel, Rodriguez, Gibson and Ludacris as they’ve been a part of the franchise for quite some time. However, they gave Emmanuel, who joined the cast in “Furious 7,” a lot more to do and she thrived, fitting right in with Gibson and Ludacris. Her driving sequence in the middle of the movie proves hilarious and fun.

This is the best Gibson has been in a “Fast and Furious” movie since “2 Fast 2 Furious.” The role plays much more to his skillset and he more so lets the film come to him. His humor plays within the fabric of the movie. It seems more natural and Gibson seems more comfortable.

Although the film starts off with a team of five, it grows throughout with plenty of cameos from old favorites of the previous movies. They all worked, and brought a smile to my face. The best comes from one of the newest members of the franchise, Helen Mirren (Queenie). The overqualified Mirren dominates the screen in a five-minute sequence that is incredibly out of place. But, who cares? It’s Helen Mirren.

“F9” has a bit of a villain problem, as too many come to the surface. Cipher (Charlize Theron) is left over from the eighth installment, while Jakob and Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) team up. While I enjoyed the back-and-forths between Cipher and Otto, there was no room for the great Theron to shine. Cena thrives when a film allows him to use his natural charisma. In “F9,” he’s just a straight up bad guy for the most part. There’s not much fun or interesting about his character.

Director Justin Lin returns to the franchise after a two-film hiatus and helms some awesome and over-the-top action set pieces. As absurd as some scenes are, they look really good. Also, you’ll never be more entertained by a magnet. This is where the film thrives, with its popcorn action, fun and humor. Ever since Dom and Brian pulled a safe through the streets of Rio de Janeiro in “Fast Five,” we want that entertainment. For the most part, every film since has delivered. Granted, every film tries to jump a bigger shark. “F9” jumped a megalodon. The question is when does the absurdity become too much? Some may say it’s already there, but as a fan I still absolutely love this franchise.

At 2 hours and 25 minutes, the film is definitely too long. There are a few scenes here and there that can be cut. As with most franchises, there are also characters and scenes used to lay the groundwork for future films. For the most part, the story works. It’s not anything we haven’t seen before, but for as much of a plot as a “Fast and Furious” movie needs, it fits right in.

Nine movies in, the “Fast and Furious” franchise is what it is. You know what you’re getting into, so you either love it or you don’t. “F9” won’t do anything to change your mind, but fans of the series can smile. This is far from one of the best films in the franchise, but it’s a step up from its predecessor and proves the franchise still has legs. The absurdity is at an all-time high, but the joy is right where it should be.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, left, and Tyrese Gibson in a scene from “F9: The Fast Saga.” (Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures via AP)

Rebecca’s Take

When it comes to the “Fast & Furious” franchise, I’m such a big fan of the gloriously outlandish, physics-defying films that I grade them on a rating system of their own. In my eyes, 2011’s “Fast Five” – the peak entry that catapulted the street-racing series to the next level – is a perfect, five-star film. “Fast Five” and the next two sequels, “Fast & Furious 6” (2013) and “Furious 7” (2015), represent the saga’s gold standard.

When the dark and dismal “Fate of the Furious” debuted in 2017, I was worried the series had finally run out of gas. After eight films, was this the end of the road for the “Fast & Furious”? Had Vin Diesel taken his campaign to get the franchise an Oscar too far?

The good news is “F9: The Fast Saga” remembers what the series is about: fun and family. The supercharged sequel finds new lanes for the franchise to explore, cranking up the high-octane action, absurd stunts, beloved character returns and ridiculous fun that fans of the series have come to expect.

In the ninth installment of the franchise, street racer/master mechanic/heist planner/patriarch Dominic Toretto (Diesel) comes out of hiding to confront a new enemy: his estranged brother Jakob (John Cena). Now a super spy, Jakob is involved in a plot to steal Ares, a device that can wreak havoc on any nation’s computer weapons systems.

Determined to stop his brother, Dom and his loyal crew – wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), tech guy Tej (Ludacris), muscle Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) – reunite with some familiar faces for their biggest mission yet.

From the get-go, “F9” delivers the over-the-top, eye-popping action sequences that have become a hallmark of the series. The latest installment marks the return of director Justin Lin, who masterfully helmed the third, fourth, fifth and sixth entries. Lin’s handiwork immediately comes through onscreen as he restores the series’ flashy luster. This was missing from F. Gary Gray’s dull direction of “Fate of the Furious.”

The thrilling sequel starts with a breathtaking NASCAR race, setting the pace for the adrenaline-fueled set pieces. During a wild chase from military tanks, a new gadget cements Dom’s status as the series’ Batman. The sequel gets a lot of mileage out of a giant magnet, which proves incredibly useful – and downright entertaining. And the stunts are literally out of this world as the franchise finally goes into space. The gravity-defying sequence gives Gibson and Ludacris some of their best moments in the franchise, drawing laughs every time the pair is onscreen. “F9” successfully pushes the boundaries on what the series can accomplish.

While “Fate of the Furious” made the mistake of separating its core characters, “F9” brings them together right away – and resurrects a fan favorite. The “Fast & Furious” films are known for bringing back dead characters, and when they do, they always make it work. This time, “F9” meets the challenge of bringing Han (Sung Kang) back into the fold. When I saw my favorite character in the franchise was returning after a two-film absence, I was ecstatic. “F9” explains why the snack-loving Han’s death wasn’t all that final, and for the most part, the explanation works. Kang’s sensitive yet cool jack of all trades fits in seamlessly with the crew, adding to the group’s delightful chemistry. The film hints we’ll be seeing more “Justice for Han.”

“F9” also gives its female characters plenty of screen time – and with each other, addressing a criticism Rodriguez has levied at the films. After sitting out “Fate of the Furious,” Jordana Brewster returns as Dom’s sister, Mia. In one scene, Mia and Letty eat dinner and check in with each other. It’s a lovely, quiet moment in which we see two female characters simply talking, which is rare for the series. That’s not to say Letty and Mia don’t get in on the action, which they do – and it’s totally awesome. The two show they can easily fend for themselves during an all-out brawl. For Rodriguez, “F9” marks the latest example of her physical prowess, having taken on Gia Carano and Ronda Rhousey in previous installments.

The film also gives its other female characters standout moments. While the films usually spotlight Ramsey’s hacking abilities, “F9” gives Emmanuel her own action sequence. Her driving scene is exciting and hilarious, allowing the actress to blossom out of her element. The sequel also introduces a new character, Elle (Anna Sawai), whose mastery of firearms is quite helpful. One of my favorite moments features the return of Queenie Shaw (the fantastic Helen Mirren), who shows off her driving skills during a short chase. If the franchise could bring Mirren back for a chase scene in the next (and last) two movies, that would make me happy.

In a departure from past installments, “F9” weaves in flashbacks of Dom and Jakob. The technique effectively explains the wedge between the two brothers. As Dom’s younger self, Vinnie Bennett channels Diesel’s mannerisms, bearing a striking resemblance to the superstar. As the younger Jakob, Finn Cole might not have Cena’s chiseled looks, but the actor does a good job in conveying the character’s chip on his shoulder. The NASCAR scenes also bring the great Michael Rooker to the franchise. The casting is a clever callback to 1990’s “Days of Thunder,” where Rooker plays Cup champion Rowdy Burns, Tom Cruise’s rival.

As enjoyable as “F9” is, it’s not without its flaws. The blockbuster is nearly two-and-a-half hours, which is long (prepare for at least one bathroom break).

Positioned as the film’s villain, Cena feels like the odd man out. Most of his scenes are separate from those with the main cast, so he’s largely unable to share in the group camaraderie. His action time is limited onscreen, and he doesn’t get to showcase his flair for comedy. You can’t help but feel Cena is being underused here so he can be used more in future films. Speaking of villains, the franchise still hasn’t figured out how to use Charlize Theron’s Cipher. The “Fate of the Furious” baddie returns in “F9,” but as a secondary villain, she’s barely in the film.

Like a NASCAR race, “F9” has plenty of turns before reaching the finish line, hitting its marks as a welcome return to form. The film mostly corrects the mistakes of “Fate of the Furious,” leaving the eighth entry in the rear-view mirror as it follows closely on the bumper of the best three films in the series. With its outrageous stunts and ever-growing family of characters, “F9” proves the franchise has a lot left in its tank. With just two more films to go, the road ahead looks bright once again for the franchise.

4 out of 5 stars