It’s easy. Just say what’s in your heart.
In Fast Five, Vin Diesel delivered an iconic speech. Well, iconic to me. It’s a tender moment between himself and fellow Fast founder Paul Walker, wherein he assuages his friend’s fears about impending fatherhood. Brian (Walker) is expecting a child with Mia (Jordana Brewster), which will make Dom (Diesel) an uncle. Anyone familiar with the Fast franchise knows how important the concept of family is to the series, and this was the first time when their family grew, at least biologically. The moment lets Dom talk directly about what family means to him.
“I remember everything about my father,” Dom says before waxing poetic on the values of his unseen and long-deceased father, Jack. By Dom’s telling, Jack was the kind of guy who’d cook a meal for his neighborhood and feed everyone as long as they’d gone to church. A man who stayed up late to learn Mia’s next homework lesson so that he could help her with homework each day. Dom describes the perfect father — a man of courage, grace and honor. He describes the man he wants Brian to be for his sister and his nephew. He describes the man he wishes he could be, one who doesn’t live a quarter mile at a time.
Most action movies depict fatherhood as a burden. Even the Marvel Studios films, which are the current standard-bearer for mass entertainment, shy away from allowing their heroes to be parents with adult emotional responsibilities (Ant-Man being the exception, although Scott’s view of parenting in the first film is adolescent). However, action movies are fundamentally adolescent and the true devotion that is parenthood runs counter to that.
Starting with that moment in Fast Five, the Fast series, however, has never treated it as anything but a blessing — despite requisite plot contrivances to keep children out of harm’s way (i.e., “which character is staying with Brian during this adventure” in the current installment, F9). The ending of Furious 7 saw Mia and Brian retire from the adventure game, a necessary development given Walker’s untimely death in real life but also a narrative choice that befits the franchise’s idea that people must grow and change as they embrace adulthood.
This meant that any furtherance of fatherhood themes needed to fall on Dom’s shoulders, and The Fate of the Furious introduced Dom’s heretofore unknown son by Elena (Elsa Pataky), his lover from between Fast Five and Furious 6. In Fate, Cipher (Charlize Theron) forces Dom to turn against his found family for the sake of his son. This was the first time in the series that Dom is forced to really reckon with the type of father he would want to be, as well as what being a father changes about him.
F9 challenges Dom’s entire understanding of who his father was and how that influences the father he has been so far and will be down the road. Vin Diesel lives and breathes the character of Dominic Toretto, but the last few movies in the franchise have rarely given him his due as F9 does.
It also features liberal use of electromagnets. Quite a lot of electromagnets.
If you’re already the type to pooh-pooh the extreme earnestness of the Fast franchise’s focus on family, it probably won’t connect with you. So save your time and money for something else. I beg you. If you’re a fan of the franchise and open to Diesel’s weird brand of wholesome action-fantasy, F9 has a lot to offer and feels like a return to form for a franchise that strayed a little bit from its aesthetic and moral foundations in the past couple of entries.
F9 opens with Dom living off the grid with his son, Little Brian, and his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). They’ve basically retired from the adventure life. He fears what the world could do to Little Brian. He’s never shown his son the area of East Los Angeles that made their family. Never shown him a street race, visited a bodega or even introduced most of his extended family. Their seclusion is safe and secure on the surface, but Dom is still living his life as if the next day might require him to pack up and drop everything. He thinks he’s settled down, but he’s still living his life a quarter-mile at a time.
Director Justin Lin returns to the franchise after directing the third through sixth installments, which escalated in both melodramatic theatrics and visionary high-concept action tomfoolery. James Wan stepped in for Furious 7 and F. Gary Gray took the reigns for The Fate of the Furious, which, in hindsight, feels more like a prelude to 2019’s franchise spin-off, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. None of those three quite reached the past heights of the series. In fact, upon rewatch, they only feel increasingly distant from the heart of this franchise, with Hobbs & Shaw culminating in what feels like a classically contemporary Dwayne Johnson facsimile of what he believes people want, including too much Ryan fucking Reynolds. All three of those movies used the spy-movie shtick introduced by Lin’s Furious 6 but took it even farther and ultimately made the movies feel too similar. Too otherworldly. Endless electronic MacGuffins, drone strikes, etc. Not enough family, drama and emotion. Lin follows suit with another digital-baddie story, but he meshes it with his keen eye for action and high-concept automobile battle sequences. It’s not as good as Lin’s other entries in the franchise, but thanks to his presence, F9 combines great family drama with the series’ most insane action ideas yet.
There’s no sense in describing the plot or even the inciting incident that puts Dom back in the driver’s seat of his NOS’d-out muscle-car. Most of that is just the object-chasing pretense of action beats. Just know this: Apparently Dom and Mia had a brother, Jakob (John Cena), who was cast out of the Toretto family after the death of their father. Jack Toretto’s death is essential to the Fast mythology because Dom was imprisoned after beating a rival racer, whom he blamed, half to death. That was the start of Dom’s criminal past and his first documented Furious incident. The story is retold in F9 through flashbacks and show how Jakob fits into that story. It’s a seamless retconning that works only because we know how serious the bad blood must be for Dom to break the bond of family.
Cena is customarily great as Jakob, a much softer character than the advertising would have audiences believe. He’s not a retread of Johnson’s Hobbs character, who greased up and had a bald-out battle with Diesel in his inaugural Fast film. F9 leaves the impression Cena was cast for his acting abilities in addition to his massive bulk, and it was a great choice. He’s stronger than Dom, faster than Dom and, it turns out, more capable of conveying subtle emotion than Dom. Unlike the ending of The Fate of the Furious, which saw Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw turn from villain to member of the family (a weird move that is better with retcons, but didn’t make much sense at the time), Jakob is given a more intriguing resolution. I hope we see more of him in the upcoming finale to the series.
That’s not to totally diss on Vin Diesel, who does some of his best work in F9. This is a Dom like we’ve never seen him: re-evaluating the core essence of the man he thought he’d be versus the man he’s become. This isn’t told through the lens of Dom making bad or immoral choices but rather through the very Fast-franchise theme of fatherhood. The way Dom sees himself as a father versus the father he had, as well as his vision of what a father should be, changes when he learns new truths. Fatherhood is an unimaginable responsibility that Diesel and his franchise take seriously. In the context of the series, this is a surprisingly thoughtful shift in the character’s development.
F9 is certainly one of the most frantically paced movies in the series. Some might compare it to Moonraker, with the implication that Moonraker isn’t one of Roger Moore’s best James Bond movies because of its sheer creative audacity. The story is far too similar to the previous two with regard to MacGuffins, but it has far less plot flab and the action sequences are all much faster and more fun. Would anyone with an ounce of taste truly scoff at a movie wherein several fan-favorite characters make their triumphant return just to launch some of our heroes into space inside a rocket-rigged red Pontiac Fiero? I don’t think so. We suffered through a year without new movies as we’d generally known them, and now everyone’s pretending they spent it watching the Criterion Channel rather than some brain-dead bullshit on Netflix. The movies are back! Embrace cinema!
The most important thing about F9, above all else, is that it feels genuine. It delivers what it knows its audience wants and it does so honestly. Vin Diesel’s “welcome back to the movies” schtick has been mocked and parodied for the last few months. It’s always felt real to me. Sure, he wants audiences to pay to see his movie. But at the same time, F9 understands what audiences are looking for in their stories — even more so than the last few entries. For the first time in more than half a decade, this franchise feels like unfettered ramblings by Lin and Diesel from their hearts. No pretension of spatial or scientific coherency. No expanded role for the monotonous Dwayne Johnson. No attempts at breaking anything besides the minds of moviegoers sick of the same-old, same-old. After so long away, it’s nice to see a movie so big and earnest.