The Curse of the Ampersand
Truly it is said that you don't know what you've got until you haven't actually got it. While there is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that my last trip to the cinema pre-pandemic was to see Vin Diesel in Bloodshot, and the first now we are entering what I can only refer to as a post-pandemic phase of life was to see the same big lad in Justin Lin's F9 (aka Fast squiggle Furious 9, and various other things), a far greater gulf than even that fifteen-month gap suggests separates the two. Things changed; the simple act of physically getting to the cinema became much more challenging than I would have possibly imagined. Being there at all suddenly seemed like an impossibly precious experience.
But, on the other hand, it was a Fast squiggle Furious film, so there's a limit to how transcendental an experience it could actually be. The film gets underway with a flashback to 1989, depicting an incident from the racing career of racing driver Jack Toretto, specifically one which brings that career (and much else besides) to a spectacular and very definite end. Jack Toretto, of course, is the pappy of gravel-voiced man-mountain Dom Toretto, and one problem the film never quite overcomes is the fact that the actor hired to play the young Dom (exactly what his name is depends on where you look: it's either Vinnie Bennett or Vincent Sinclair Diesel, but this may be because there are various junior Doms at different points in the film) actually looks nothing like him (the script even comments that Dom Toretto has ‘very distinctive features').
Well, from here we snap back to the present day, where Dom and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are living in rustic seclusion with Dom's son Little Brian (who is being taught to service tractor engines at a surprisingly young age). Three of their old associates rock up with a problem, asking them to leap back into action, and the danger at this point is that the audience is too busy going ‘I remember this bit from Avengers: Endgame and it didn't end well for everyone' that they miss the exposition which is being laid at this point.
It turns out that yet another secret doomsday weapon is in danger of being acquired by the wrong people, said device having been conveniently divided into discrete chunks, each of which provides a fine opportunity for the obligatory overblown stunt sequence. So it's off to Mexico (the role of Mexico is played by Thailand, rather transparently), Edinburgh, and Tbilisi, amongst other places, for all the usual silly carnage. The big twist or emotional impeller for this film is that the most prominent bad guy is Vin's never-before-alluded-to little brother Jake (John Cena), whose neck seems to be permanently clenched.
We're twenty years into Fast squiggle Furious at this point (yes, by all means take a moment to process that). I myself was relatively late to the party, not really paying proper attention until Fast squiggle Furious 5, the point at which the series completed its unlikely transition to full-blown blockbuster franchise – but, certainly since that point, it's worth remembering what effortlessly accomplished and agreeable entertainment these films have been, negotiating some rather formidable obstacles with relative grace.
But twenty years is still twenty years, and bigger names than this have wobbled or come undone before this point. The X Men series had already fizzled out; the Bond movies were just about to hit their late-Moore/Dalton rough patch. Nothing lasts forever, something we should all be very aware of right now; so perhaps it should not come as a surprise that for the first time in ages, we are presented with a Fast squiggle Furious film that sputters more than it cruises.
The three big action sequences hit their marks, it's true – but there's an awful lot of obvious CGI, and an increasingly reliance on improbable shenanigans involving electromagnets as the film goes on. It's not that they're bad, as such; but the series has done better in the past.
F squiggle F was never just about the stunts and crashes, anyway: what gave the best of these films their heart and warmth was all the other stuff with the ensemble cast and the agreeably ridiculous complexity of the ongoing plot linking the various instalments. F9, certainly to begin with, seems to be fielding a somewhat depleted side: hiving genial Dwayne Johnson off into his own spin-off film (apparently he and Vin Diesel had a major tiff) removes one of the series' biggest and most likeable presences, and leaves a gap they struggle to fill: giving Tyrese Gibson additional comic relief bits to do isn't much of a solution, especially when the running gag is an excruciatingly knowing and laborious one about how implausible these films are. ‘As long as we obey the laws of physics, we'll be fine,' says Chris Bridges' character at one point: obviously, this means they should all be dead, but it's more evidence of a dift towards self-awareness that bodes rather ill – and the climax of the film features a ridiculous conceit seemingly nicked from an old episode of Top Gear, something so brazenly, stupidly absurd that it really feels like F squiggle F drifting into the realms of self-parody.
You can see something similar happening elsewhere in the film. They seemingly try to get around the Johnson Gap Problem (Scott Eastwood has also been sacked) by mustering a slew of familiar faces from previous films: Jordana Brewster gets invited back, most obviously, while there are cameos, extended and otherwise, by various people, some of whom only the most dedicated F squiggle F watcher will recognise (I'm talking about the main cast of Tokyo Drift, amongst others). The contrived plotting required to facilitate all of this, in addition to the main storyline, just adds to the impression that the writers didn't care all that much about it, and they're hoping the viewer won't, either. But it does feel increasingly problematic that one character whose death was a major plot point in two or three previous films has been miraculously brought back from the dead, at the same time that the film is doing an awkward dance around the fact that former main character Brian O'Conner is supposedly still alive and well, but never quite appears on screen due to Paul Walker's death (for most of this movie, O'Conner is supposedly handling everyone else's childcare requirements).
That really sums up what I took away from F9: it's a film which seems just a little too sure of the audience's goodwill, and which trades on it just a bit too much. Yeah, all this is completely ridiculous, the subtext seems to be saying: but you knew that coming in, so we're not going to bother too hard to cover any of that up. Here's just a load more stuff like the old stuff; you liked it then, and you're going to like it now, especially as it's extra silly this time round�
Hum, well – to be honest, I didn't, at least not as much: perhaps it was inevitable that the F squiggle F franchise would pass the point at which the whole edifice started to collapse under the weight of its own implausibility. Even so, there's not much of an attempt to disguise or counter this in evidence. Perhaps the fact that there is only one more of these films left to come is just as well. Either way, while this just about delivers what you expect from a film in this series, it's still the weakest episode in ages.