29 June 2021

First Impressions: F9

Ahhh it's that golden time that comes around every couple years - a new Fast and Furious movie is upon us! Make no bones about it, I am a fan of this franchise, but I hate to say the unthinkable - I think this franchise has run its course. This is maybe something everyone else has known for a long time. I was kind of done after Fate of the Furious (2017), but whatever. This has actually been the longest time in between installments, if you'd believe it (I guess not if you include Hobbs and Shaw [2019]). Let's do a serious deep dive into this, and SPOILERS from here on out, I actually had the two biggest reveals spoiled for me by TV ads so...if you really want the best experience, stop watching TV.

In anticipation of F9 (2021), I didn't watch every Fast movie, but I managed to get in 1, 2, and 6. This may seem random, but those were the three available on the streaming platforms I subscribe to. And yeah, there's such a big difference. The Fast and the Furious (2001) is such a quant and simple movie. I was amazed out into the final big action sequence I was, when it's really just three cars trying to hi-jack one semi-truck. It's engrossing! I'm also struck by how lame the villain is - I totally didn't remember Johnny Tran getting punked out like he does, probably because it's saddled between such huge sequences that it's easily forgettable. See, the real villain is Dom Toretto, who is also kind of not the villain, and it all actually makes the film super interesting.

Oh, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). This is underrated, man. It's the best straight action film of this franchise, I tell you this. It's just like, a bunch of stuff that happens, it's so over-stylized, and the most 2003 movie ever. One thing weird is that hardly any of the later movies have this kind of immortalized feel beyond rapper cameos and general film style (the closest equivalent might be the Mission: Impossible franchise?). There is essentially no plot and no depth, but that's what makes it worthwhile. We really don't get these kind of mid-level films anymore, as clearly evidenced by this very franchise. Watching this I yearned for the simplicity and tacit resistance to a command room where everyone is hacking on monitors.

As I watched Fast & Furious 6 (2013) with my fiance, who had never seen any of these, she kept remarking that Paul Walker looked much much older. I said that's because he's wearing jeans and a button down shirt instead of converse shoes and an Orange County Choppers shirt. Seriously, his performance in 2 Fast is bonkers. It's as if they wrote it for a black stereotype, but gave it to the whitest guy ever, but he then made the choice to perform is lines totally straight. It's somehow the less racist choice. I actually found myself liking this one a lot more than I remembered, and here's the point of all this:

There are a lot of different versions of Fast, and that's what makes it cool. You have the straight 2000s mild action films, the designed to be Straight-to-DVD Tokyo Drift (2006), and then Fast & Furious (2009), which looking back is honestly the best franchise-rebooting film ever that set up everything else. Fast Five (2011) brought the team-up aspect, honestly pre-dating The Avengers (2012), but the 6th one really got them into this spy game thing, which they haven't totally left. And that's a shame.

It's an old tale. They've gotten too big. You can't do 2 Fast again. It's too outside our standards. As soon as this became a billion dollar franchise expectations and formula went way up. I give them credit for still making each film distinctive. 7 is the one with Jason Statham and Paul Walker's death. 8 is the one with the submarine where Dom is evil. 9 is the one with Dom's brother. However, each of these are starting to feel the same. They're suddenly all government agents now. That was a line 6 crossed and they've had trouble peeling back and focusing on character.

It feels like they have exhausted most of their creativity in terms of what this franchise can do and be. Instead of all these diverse plots and set-ups, suddenly for the last FOUR movies we have basically churned out this spy shit. And that's all fun and kitschy for like, one or two go arounds, but by this point it's just in too much conflict with the origins of the characters and franchises. Diesel never totally looks comfortable as a spy, but that's a difference between him and his long lost brother that's mentioned but never developed or exploited.

In Furious 6 we get this government agent thing for the first time, but it works because they are specifically going after someone who uses cars for his crimes to a level that's beyond the capabilities of traditional law enforcement. They also solve most of the problems with cars. See, it's actually motivated, flimsy as it may be. By this point it just no longer seems to make sense why they are in this role. They have completely abandoned any street racing, and seem like they fight with fists more than wheels. There is still the requisite car chases, of course, but it all feels as much as it would be in any sp thriller. Even Diesel sort of says that like, "We're not on call anymore." It's all lip service, he was never not going to go on this adventure. It's all just an excuse to have a big wacky action movie.

Now, let's dive into this a little bit, because sometimes the smaller stories don't work. And first, I know, a big wacky action movie is why we're all here. But that doesn't make a film good. I'd argue against Bumblebee (2018) which tried the small thing with Transformers, thinking that was the simple path towards quality. Oh, let's do a stripped down, character driven film instead! Well, no, it doesn't totally work with giant robots, that movie was crazy forgettable. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) was a terrible movie by any metric, but it was also extremely true to its brand, arguably fun and weird, and cringey in all the best ways. Bumblebee dove into a smaller story, which is commendable, but something went wrong. Perhaps it was the fact that it lacked the epic world-shattering story, which is less exhausting, but it didn't present enough stakes to warrant a giant robot war in its place.

I realize at this point it's just me complaining about everything. I apparently don't like smaller intimate movies nor big louder outrageous movies. This is true, because size and loudness is not the metric for enjoying a movie or not. There is a lot of factors that go into whether or not someone likes a movie and it's honestly too individualized to dig into here. I'm looking for a melting pot of attitude, attractive cinematography (totally subjective to me, but suffice it to say it needs to fit the subject material), competent and rewarding writing, and developed characters who find that niche of making decisions that are exciting and unexpected, but also well within their established parameters. If this is feels like it's asking a lot, that's because it is - good movies are hard to make.

I didn't hate everything about F9. But I hated a lot of it. It was not as bad as Fate, which really left me disappointed. I love the soap opera elements that have run through this thing. I think Letty STILL has amnesia, right? Like, she doesn't remember anything pre-6? I just wanted Fate to pull the trigger on brainwashing or even bolder yet, Dom actually turning back to his evil roots. F9 brings the long-lost brother into the mix, and to be fair, it is a little motivated and true to Dom's backstory going back to The Fast and the Furious. Adding the brother layer is interesting, but it doesn't do enough. There is a long process of forgiveness on Dom's part, and to be honest, I enjoyed the idea that he's such a blockhead that he got one idea in his head and couldn't find room to fit in any other possibility.

This makes me think back to last year's Bloodshot (2020). That movie worked so well because Diesel could not understand that he was in a farce and he took it so damn seriously. It was just perfect for that character, who is so dumb and angry that he would just aim at killing people with zero nuance. There's a lot of that here. You can tell that Diesel is trying really hard to act (AND I've never really been against Diesel as an actor, I think he's great in almost everything he does, certainly moreso in the early-2000s when he was a little more challenged instead of cherry-picking roles that fit one very specific persona. His vulnerability at the end of xXx [2003] when he's just sitting on the rocks scared and stripped of the tough guy he's been playing for the whole movie and in his death scene in Saving Private Ryan [1998] is great).

While watching 2 Fast again, I did find myself curious about Brian O'Conner's backstory. I mean, what makes this guy tick? What made him want to walk this line between law and crime that he feels free crossing at whim every other movie? I didn't pick up the added depth until this viewing actually, that one big reason why he let Dom go at the end of 1 is because he failed to protect Roman Pearce when they were growing up together. But I guess we won't be getting a Brian O'Conner movie any time soon.

It's fun to dig more into Dom Toretto's past. I thought his father might be played by a little bigger name, but that's okay. What's more weird is the strange implications we get by casting John Cena as his brother. Doesn't that make Dom blatantly white? For some reason Charlize Theron does a racial analysis of him, but something feels lost when a man who self-identifies as ethnically ambiguous is essentially white-washed into Italian. Diesel is a huge part of the production side of these films at this point, which feels all the more baffling.

I also want to point out that the younger actors look NOTHING like mini-Diesel and Cenas. To the point where you kind of wonder which one is playing which at first. There were better matching younger representations in Dumb and Dumber: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003). It all felt kind of bizarre.

Anyway, while Diesel gets this prolonged sequence where he finally realizes his error and forgives his brother, Jakob doesn't really get any of that, yet he arrives at the same point. We just don't get the insight into his pathos when he's betrayed by the stock German CEO villain. He's just kind of mildly irritated and then he comes back to save Dom. It follows the only consistent element of this serious, arguably dating back to the first movie - the villain always becomes the next part of the Family. Diesel (or maybe from their viewpoint, O'Conner...), the Rock, Statham, Cena. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the big attached action star is always absorbed into the crew. Cena will almost assuredly return in 10 Fast 10 Furious (2023).

This is an aside, but it's also getting to the point where it's a little bizarre that they won't let Brian O'Conner die. It's nearly impossible to justify his retirement when Diesel and Letty are in the same situation now, yet have no such qualms about being unincluded. I liked seeing Mia back in action, because that character has always gotten the short shrift, but also in what world would Brian be left at home as the babysitter? Mia assuredly needed to return since John Cena is her brother, too (a fact I feel like they came close to forgetting until this movie was half-written) and there's pathos to develop, but it's again pretty rushed. I also like that she's also somehow a hacker now, too. How do all these people become hackers?! It's like the freakin 90s in here. I don't know how they can keep these plates spinning with O'Conner gone, his spot at the table was a nice tribute, but they can't treat him like a sitcom character we never see again!

I've mentioned a few times that the film is a little rushed, which honestly only feels that way in developing character, not plot. I realized this while re-watching 6 again - one big reason they can churn these out quickly these days, and keep the focus on formula and setpieces is that there really hasn't been any character growth in like four movies. Maybe the Rock if anybody. But with everyone else they're able to just write a few fun disconnected scenes and don't have to put much thought into anything. I've always hated when Brian goes back to LA to talk to Braga because he learns NOTHING and the plot completely keeps moving without him, but honestly, it's just to give Brian something to do for the middle of the movie. Otherwise he's just a random white guy hanging out. No longer the protagonist, just anonymous fodder.

Han got into this too a little bit. Are you ready to talk about Han. Fucking A, Han. Han! I should have been excited, and I definitely was, he's a great character because he's effortlessly cool while also showing that he demonstrably cares tremendously about the friends around him. This dude was amazingly plucked out of Tokyo Drift into this behemoth and his death has not only dictated the timeline for like four movies, but driven much of the last two films.

I get the feeling that Justin Lin just loves his guy. I have no idea why, I mean, he's a fun character and all. But he doesn't actually do anything. He doesn't necessarily have a lot of skills to bring to the table, he's just kind of another person around. That's part of what makes him great, he's just a fun dude to include, but he really doesn't add anything to 6. It's sad to not be included in the heights this franchise has achieved, and at least Gal Gadot swapped this for Wonder Woman, but also folks dying is what makes this actually have legit Game of Thrones-esque stakes.

By the way, this flies against Roman Pearce's mantra in this movie that they are invincible and everything works out for them all the time. He has a point, and there's some fun meta commentary there. We really needed one of them to die to give his theory some irony or growth, though, instead of it just confirming by them driving a Pontiac Fiero into space. We need to talk more about this, but one thing at a time. It's just so bizarre that he would have this theory when a lot of his friends have died, but also maybe he's right because Han is in fact back!

I hate this characters returning from the dead, stuff. Like, "Ohhh no, he got out in time!" Also, Jakob had nothing to do with it right, so there was actually no reason for them to be investigating? It was a dead end? These things start to become frustrating. Is Mr. Nobody dead, by the way? The inciting incident is them investigating that crash, again for no reason, it isn't a CIA mandate. It's all a very weak excuse to get the action started. But we never actually find out what happened to him,

I think that modern blockbusters literally don't care anymore. It's not important that these questions be answered, audiences are distracted enough by the fast cars and big tits to think about these issues. Anyway, undoing Han's death feels like it's undoing the previous two entire movies that were largely fueled by this stuff. I also can't believe his re-appearance wasn't kept under wraps. Like I said, it was all over the marketing material, and I just realized he's even on the damn poster. Still, even though this appears as a denouement, labelled "Justice for Han", which seeks to reconcile the bizarre fact that Statham has been absorbed into the Family despite him killing Han, he definitely still intended to murder Han! There's no justice! We got a midly fun mid-credits scene, maybe something will happen with this - but I will always say that maybe future scenes are no excuse for not putting the catharsis right there on the screen for all of us.

Now, let me tell you this right now - it was fun as HELL seeing the Tokyo Drift gang back and messing around. We obviously needed more human moments when they realize Han is alive, I mean, that's arguably a bigger moment than any of the main Family seeing him alive. I have just been pulling for Lucas Black and Bow Wow to return for like ten years. And I love it so much that these two have aged worse than anyone else in the cast. I honestly do not remember Earl Hu, but pumped he's back, too.

It makes me think about just how different Tokyo Drift was. There's none of that cop / criminal aspect, it really was a movie connected only through the use of fast cars street racing. Maybe that's why they never found a way to integrate these characters into the expanded combined shenanigans. But they're still part of this franchise and it honestly warmed my heart so much to see them hanging out and enjoying Coronas at 1327. Lord knows they need the money.

Needless to say, there are plenty of characters who need to return. Leon, from the original crew, played by Johnny Strong (definitely the weakest character of that original film). Suki! Eva Mendes! For some reason Don Omar appears but not Tego Calderon in F9. I'm okay without Scott Eastwood coming back, who is the blandest actor ever. But hey, Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart ARE in this universe now...

The rocket-car angle is definitely fun and it's technically telegraphed, which is great, although how the hell did that come through as something they'd need for the finale?! You gotta go with it at this point, and everything about their space trip was very satisfying. I can't be the only one noticing that they send the two black guys up on the possible suicide mission, though, right? What is going on with this movie after so many years of great inclusivity...?! But, I talked about this series going to space years ago. I'm so happy about this.

And that's about it. There's some good stuff here, definitely some fun stuff. I think the franchise needs to break out of the mold it's boxed itself in at this point. When they started doing this style of combined family adventures it worked because it was so new and exciting. Now they need something else new and exciting. I guess that's a little bit of what Hobbs and Shaw was doing. Maybe that's the direction here. What next, though? We've done tanks, submarines, space cars...maybe an undersea adventure? Or cars vs. wizards? I think wizards is the play. It's also a weird request, but I dug centering in just one city - LA, Miami, Tokyo, LA again, Rio, London, then it all kind of unraveled as they went on globetrotting adventures. It's nice to get that international city flavor to push the story, to add the character of the city. The first one is covered in haze of an LA Summer, the second is full of the gaudy neon lights of Miami. Tokyo Drift does its thing. They're just getting safer as they get bigger, which isn't leading to new and innovative movies.

What do you think? The next play should clearly just a Cardi B-led female spy thriller.

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