For so long, the Fast & Furious franchise exerted its magnetic pull on me, but I resisted. Due to some neurological tic I don’t totally understand, I tend to simply dissociate while watching any bright, noisy action movie. (I’ve gotten better at watching them, for obvious professional reasons, but staying alert is still a lot of work.) This series just seemed like it would blissfully carry on forever whether or not I paid it any attention. Fast cars, beefy dudes, vroom vroom. Got it.
Well, reader, I come to you today hat in hand, begging forgiveness. I still haven’t seen every Fast & Furious movie; I’m told I don’t really need to. But I was coaxed into watching the first installment a few weeks ago, and I found to my mild surprise that I kinda liked it. So I went to see F9.
It might be the most perfect Hollywood summer blockbuster ever made.
Not the best, mind you. To me, that distinction probably belongs to Jurassic Park, a disaster movie that boasts just a wisp of a plot but a whole lot of wonder. (Also dinosaurs and Laura Dern.) Yet if you wanted to teach a course on the platonic ideal of the big-budget, distinctly Hollywood-born action blockbuster, F9 could furnish the whole syllabus.
Some spoilers for the plot of F9 follow. Proceed according to your own comfort level.
I didn’t need to know the other Fast & Furious films to enjoy F9. In fact, not knowing them may have helped.
The Fast & Furious franchise is peopled with a lot of characters from various installments, all of whom live in the same cinematic universe but haven’t necessarily been on screen together. The series has always boasted a remarkably diverse cast, an asset many other global blockbuster franchises have only slowly caught on to; F9, directed by franchise regular Justin Lin, pulls some of them into the same orbit. Familiar faces are present: Vin Diesel as ringleader Dom, Michelle Rodriguez as his partner Letty, Jordana Brewster as his sister Mia, an assortment of others. In truth, however, the characters’ relationships to one another are either quick to grasp or not that important.
I realized this only when talking to friends who were better versed in the intricacies of the Fast & Furious franchise (including my esteemed colleague Emily VanDerWerff, who’s written a delightful explainer). Not knowing much about the previous nine films (if we include the adjacent Hobbs & Shaw) may have been to my advantage, going in. Some of the characters who I thought had surely recurred many times — John Cena as “Jakob,” for instance — are entirely new. The movie also featured grand, flourishy reveals for some characters, which made me think I should know and love them — but even my most savvy friends professed that they were briefly confused at who they were.
Kurt Russell plays a dude called Mr. Nobody; Charlize Theron is a villain called Cipher, and she sits in a plexiglass box sporting a dopey blonde bowl cut and hurling villainous threats; it didn’t matter that I didn’t totally know who they were because the slot they filled was obvious from the start. Unencumbered by expectations, I just let the movie roll over me, like tiny cars might roll over a giant armored truck as it barrels down the highway.
The plot of F9, as ever, is irrelevant, merely a skeleton on which to affix muscular set pieces. Sure, the plot beats are familiar. There’s a gifted agent/spy/assassin/whatever who gets called out of reluctant retirement to do one last job. There’s a decades-old rivalry that spills out into the present day. There’s some kind of weird little item, hidden in pieces around the globe, that must be retrieved by the good guys lest it fall into the hands of the bad guys, who of course want to use it to end the world.
The contemporary big-budget action movie relies on one or all of these tropes, and the results can be great — the John Wick movies, for instance, or something like Tenet. Using these familiar tropes acts like a shorthand. We don’t have to be intimately familiar with all of the movies that came before F9; we know how it will go. Just settle into the groove and let it take you for a ride.
That, I think, is exactly what moviegoers want from a summer blockbuster — or at least it’s what I want. I don’t want to have to catch up my friends on intricate backstories or deep and tangly lore if we just want to go see a silly movie on a hot day. I don’t want to have to catch myself up on all of that. Even in our sequel-obsessed culture, the best spectacle movies require only the faintest reminder of what happened in the past, preferably divulged by a few clunky lines of dialogue. You can draw me a map of what’s happened in all the Fast & Furious movies, but it barely matters going into F9.
Give the people what they want
Still, for a franchise to be successful as a franchise, it has to have a few big, recurring elements that fans can eagerly anticipate. You can’t have a Bond movie without Bond ordering a martini or fiddling with some fancy gadgets on his incredibly expensive car; we’re looking forward to those moments, and leaving them out would be distracting, telegraphing some kind of disruptive choice. Imagine some rogue installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise — my all-time favorite blockbuster series — without Tom Cruise attempting some absolutely bonkers stunt that can out-bonkers the previous movie’s stunt.
The Fast & Furious movies have their own versions of those elements. Revisiting the original film, 2001’s The Fast and the Furious — kind of a dusty, gritty crime movie, anchored in a relatively small geographic region — underlines how much the stakes and scope have grown in the intervening two decades. There have to be several car chases, and at least one needs to feel like a duel between two men who are competing to preserve their honor. There have to be some wacky stunts, and the ante must be upped every time. For whatever reason, there’s also got to be at least a brief scene with scantily clad young women (though they’ve grown more clad over the years as Hollywood blockbusters have grown more chaste) dancing at a party to some thump-thumping music.
Finally, since this is the Fast & Furious series, there has to be a lot of talk about “family.” That’s the franchise’s humanity-affirming theme: the importance of family, the kind you choose and the kind you don’t. Family has always been a popular action-franchise theme, probably because it balances out the typical tough-guy traits of the hero. While some franchises adopt other themes, like the redemptive nature of growing through failure or the importance of believing in yourself, the concept of a crew that sticks together through thick and thin defines Fast & Furious, and F9 reminds us every 20 minutes or so that nobody’s too badass to love their family.
Equally important to the success of F9 is that it strikes a tonal balance that summer blockbusters sometimes can’t muster. The easiest way to sink a blockbuster is to let it take itself too seriously, to act like it’s got a big, important meaning to convey. F9 is both earnestly serious at times — when “family” comes up — and goofy beyond belief. The film is deeply aware that it’s actually just a chapter in a fun and diverting action franchise and that it barely makes any sense. (A running gag in F9 has two characters debating why they’re still alive after the many dangers they have faced over the years, and coming to the conclusion that they’re actually invincible. Which, I mean, yeah.)
In its final stretch, F9 becomes virtually perfect
F9’s third act is when the film fully reveals its mastery of the summer blockbuster form. Until that point, the movie is merely kind of fun and predictable. Dodge those landmines! Steal this thing! Rescue that person! Solve this puzzle! Drive this car!
When it takes a turn into its final act, however, it slides into something sublime, almost balletic. Two sequences unfold, and the movie cuts between them. One involves a mega car chase with giant electromagnets that allow our heroes to whip their opponents’ vehicles around a highway. The other is ... in space.
It’s perfection. I laughed, I gasped, I may have shrieked a little. It’s funny and sorta-serious, with stakes that are at once stratospheric and totally inconsequential. And it all ends with a barbecue in someone’s backyard.
Watching F9, I realized the true mark of a great Hollywood blockbuster: It should feel as though three 6-year-olds in a backyard sandbox with an extensive collection of Matchbox cars at their disposal are having an epic Saturday, inventing a story on the fly. Things crash and bang, people crawl out of the wreckage. They defy gravity. They have adventures where everyone comes back safe. Everyone has a great time playing, and then they can go home and eat dinner.
That kind of movie isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every moment. But there’s something about summer that beckons us to recapture the joy of being a kid, with floaties on our arms in the swimming pool, Dad grilling hot dogs on the patio, and an endless stretch of vacation ahead of us. F9 works because it recaptures that silly joy, that vast imagination, that feeling that anything could happen next. I’m here for it. Vroom vroom.
F9 opens in theaters on June 25. Improbably enough, it will also have its European premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in July.