The biggest unwritten rule of action franchises is that each entry needs to find a way to one-up the last. The Matrix sequels saw Keanu Reeves fight his way through hordes of Agent Smith(s); the third John Wick movie incorporated dogs and horses into its action scenes; the latest Mission: Impossible had Tom Cruise jump out of an actual airplane. (Those three franchises just so happen to have sequels coming out in the next couple of years, and are therefore expected to up the ante again. Pray for Tom Cruise.)
But perhaps no franchise leaves itself with a more arduous task of one-upmanship than the Fast & Furious. As the series has moved away from its street racing roots into becoming a glorified superhero spectacle, there’s been a growing sense that there’s a finite amount of ridiculous things these movies can execute with muscle cars. We’ve had plenty of glorious WTF highlights over the years, including skydiving cars, a vault containing millions of dollars being dragged through Rio de Janeiro, and the team battling both a tank and a nuclear submarine. But in the comparatively underwhelming The Fate of the Furious, there were hints that the gang was running low on fuel; a numbing sequence with a collection of “zombie cars” proved to be an apt metaphor for the mindless, creeping inertia on display.
To be clear: The Fast & Furious is an unapologetically silly franchise, and fans wouldn’t want it any other way. But there’s a crucial difference between executing knowingly goofy set pieces and just going through the CGI-laden motions. At times, Fate landed in the latter category. (The prison escape scene still ripped, though, even if it seemed more like a trial run for Hobbs & Shaw.) The character dynamics in that eighth film were also in a funk, a combination of the void left by the late Paul Walker, a willingness to gloss over the fact that Deckard Shaw murdered a beloved member of the Toretto familia, and a bitter (and petty, and kind of hilarious) feud between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson that meant their characters could—glaringly and awkwardly—no longer share the screen together. It was all a bit of a mess, and not the franchise’s usual, endearing brand of messiness. A fresh injection of NOS was sorely needed so that the Fast & Furious, which will conclude its central saga after its 11th installment, could cross the finish line on a high note.
Thankfully, if there’s anyone who understands the secret sauce of the Fast & Furious—a delirious cocktail of car-centric, physics-defying high jinks held together by an earnest conviction of its characters’ corny and heartwarming family values—it’s Justin Lin, who helmed four consecutive installments in the series (Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, Fast Five, and Fast & Furious 6). Like Dominic Toretto and a bottle of Corona, Lin and the Fast & Furious were clearly made for each other, and the director wastes little time setting the tone in his return to the franchise. Within the opening half hour of F9, out in theaters on Friday, viewers will be subjected to: the tragic, fiery death of Dominic Toretto’s father on a racetrack; Letty speeding through a literal minefield on a motorcycle in a fictional South American country; Dom’s estranged brother Jakob (John Cena)—his name is Jakob, with a K—driving off a cliff before being caught in midair by a stealth plane; Tej, Roman, and Ramsey narrowly surviving crossing a collapsing wooden bridge; and Dom using a metal cable to swing his car across a cliff to avoid being fired at by attack helicopters belonging to said fictional South American country. Naturally, Dom comes out of the steel death trap unscathed. (Aside from dirtying his tank top.)
It’s an overwhelming introduction to an overwhelming movie, where so many things happen over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours that fan-favorite Han’s miraculous resurrection is as shoehorned into the plot as a Cardi B cameo. (Yes, Cardi B shows up for a few seconds; no, I genuinely can’t remember why or who she’s supposed to be.) Arriving at a moment when theaters are showing signs of life as more Americans get vaccinated, F9 feels like it’s trying to cram a year’s worth of lost moviegoing memories into one sitting. Somehow, the film’s action-packed trailers, which were already double the length of normal movie trailers, still withhold most of F9’s absurd, breathtaking, brain-cell-melting sequences. It’s all that a Fast & Furious superfan could’ve hoped for, and more.
Even the biggest blockbusters rarely operate at this scale for sustained stretches—imagine Thanos hurling chunks of a moon at Iron Man, except instead of space rocks there are a bunch of cars being tossed around by high-tech magnets for 140-plus minutes. But this is exactly the kind of controlled chaos that the franchise thrives on. What helps distinguish F9’s ridiculous excess from the events of Fate isn’t just a concerted effort to stick with practical stuntwork when applicable (i.e., treating real cars like giant Hot Wheels), but that it all harkens back to the sincere and overarching message of family sticking together in the face of, well, familial adversity. Instead of Dom being blackmailed into breaking bad for a cyberterrorist with questionable dreadlocks, this time around the franchise leans into another soapy trope: the long-lost sibling.
Of course, the fact that Dom’s had a secret brother all along—someone who has not been mentioned once in the two decades since The Fast and the Furious was released—doesn’t hold up under any scrutiny, much in the same way that F9 essentially explains Han coming back from the dead with a retcon of a previous retcon. (A good rule of thumb: Just don’t kill off the coolest person in your movies to begin with.) The good news is the film jumps between so many jaw-dropping action scenes that you won’t even be able to take a moment to realize that none of what’s happening makes any sense. For starters, the new MacGuffin doohickey that Jakob spends the movie trying to acquire is as indistinguishable in its vague world-ending capacities as Furious 7’s God’s Eye, and it’s never quite clear who Jakob’s European financier is other than a rich man-child with daddy issues. (Charlize Theron’s Cipher is also present, albeit confined to an airport hangar—not a joke—for the entire movie.) But, like Letty traversing through that minefield, the whole enterprise would blow up if F9 ever stepped on the brakes, and so it just never does.
It’s less of a flaw and more like F9’s biggest selling point: The franchise arguably jumped the shark sometime between Dom and Brian surviving a giant bridge jump in Brazil and driving a supercar across multiple Abu Dhabi skyscrapers, and has been in on the joke ever since. That’s most apparent in a recurring gag with Roman, who, after his own brush with death in South America, wonders aloud why they’ve survived their improbable adventures without a scratch and whether there are more powerful forces watching over them. (There are, Roman, and they’re called screenwriters.)
It’s a level of meta-commentary that even the historically self-aware franchise hasn’t approached, which makes the immortality talk all the more fitting as a prelude to Roman agreeing to strap himself into a Pontiac Fiero retrofitted for spaceflight. (In another plot contrivance that gleefully defies comprehension, three returning characters from Tokyo Drift are working at a jet propulsion lab in Germany, where they get paid to strap rocket engines to cars.)
While Roman nervously tests out his theory of divine intervention, his astronaut copilot/best bud/former Miami garage owner/expert hacker Tej assures him that they’ll be fine as long as they obey the laws of physics, which might be the funniest line in the 20-year history of these movies. The Fast franchise understands there’s no logic to sending its characters to outer space in a car—or resurrecting Han, for that matter—except that the fandom’s been clamoring for it. And so F9 acquiesces, because at the end of the day, the fans are extended members of the family.
The prospect of two more films in the mainline series having to one-up F9, from the abundant car-magnet theatrics to Helen Mirren evading police in a purple Lamborghini to Charlize Theron’s latest terrifying haircut to a Pontiac Fiero being shot into space, is overwhelming in its own right. (Maybe that’s why Universal Pictures is already floating a crossover with the Jurassic World dinosaurs.) But thinking too hard about the bigger picture has rarely suited this preposterous, winking franchise. With Justin Lin back at the helm, Vin Diesel continuing to deliver family monologues with unintentionally hilarious gravitas, and the laws of physics way in the rearview mirror, the Fast franchise is still at its best taking things a quarter-mile at a time.