'F9' Review: There's still gas left in the tank and family to spare

Justin Lin's 'F9' adds a Toretto brother into the mix and lots more vehicular violence as the franchise rockets into another madcap mission.

The gang is back in 'F9.'
(Image: © Universal)

What to Watch Verdict

'F9' punches into gear when it matters most—staying away from the script's sentimental seriousness that doesn't boast half the charisma of signature turbo-tremendous action insanity.


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    🏎️ Stunts once again deliver something unexpected.

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    🏎️ Dreams bigger than previous entries.

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    🏎️ Some noteworthy returns.

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    🏎️ The family is still strong.


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    🏎️ Drama lacks, more action please.

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    🏎️ John Cena and Vin Diesel are stony and cold.

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    🏎️ Nostalgia works against forward progress.

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    🏎️ Those flashbacks.

The entire Fast & Furious saga is a series of creative indulgences, and F9 is no different. Where The Fate Of The Furious and its spinoff Hobbs & Shaw escalate action spectacularity to “Dwayne Johnson punches a torpedo” proportions, F9 worships at the altar of “family” beyond retcons, resurrections, and more schmaltzy Toretto flashbacks than a Hallmark reboot of the speedster episodic could muster. It’s still extreme to the maxxx, but where Furious 7 reverently handles the sullen emotional beats of Paul Walker's unfortunate passing without downshifting excitement, F9 loses a step in its operatically soapified dredging of Dom’s new-to-canon sibling rivalry that’s—for the first time in a long time—indicative of a franchise spinning clunkier gears to maintain its juggernaut blockbuster brand.

I should clarify: I adore this dumbfounding, bombastic, vehicular ballet that drags megaton safes down roadways or skydives with sportscars. What irks me here is how the monologues about family and friendship I’ve devoured (like backyard barbeque potato salad) lose their impact amidst the stinkiest cheese Dom’s crew serves up yet, some of which loses grip of heartstrings once tugged by brawny, grunting brutes.

In the newest, most convoluted chapter of Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) tale, he and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) raise Dom’s son Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holdane) off the grid, away from criminal vengeance and persistent crosshairs. That’s until Mr. Nobody’s (Kurt Russell) plane is downed, Cipher (Charlize Theron) goes AWOL, and a new militant mercenary threatens the world—lil’ brother Jakob Toretto (John Cena). Dom and Letty reteam with Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) to retrieve a cyberweapon known as “Project Ares” before Jakob’s wealthy, dictator daddy's boy financier can control the world. Family comes first, whether they’re allies or competition.

Don’t get me wrong, F9 throttles into the same preposterous globe-trotting shenanigans we all love when Dom’s team finds themselves dodging private military patrollers in a minefield. In the film’s first grandiose chase sequence—after Roman AK-47’s roughly twenty soldiers who can’t pull one clean headshot—we get everything from motorcycle stop-on-a-dime tailwhips to Dom’s Tarzan impression while still flooring his gas pedal. It’s out of bounds and generates the same jovial guffaws and breathless gasps franchise obsessors seek, along with the sound of crunching vehicle exoskeletons. That's the F9 you’re shrieking about when leaving the theater. The sequel that defies gravity, ignores physics, and uses nitrous boosters with abandon.

Jakob’s introduction brings with it an entire backstory that unmasks Dom’s racer father Jack (JD Pardo), the track accident that crisps his corpse in a fireball explosion, and Jakob’s eventual disgracing of the Toretto lineage. Returning director Justin Lin spends more time than expected with Young Jakob (Finn Cole) and Young Dom (Vinnie Bennett), which isn’t as distracting as current Dom’s sleepwalks through his recollective past. Vin Diesel’s given too much serious meat to chew, which goes doubly for John Cena—someone like Dwayne Johnson’s flamboyance and dinosaur-like presence is so much more desired than Diesel and Cena grimacing their way through drama that’s out of their depths in this narrative. The winks are primarily sanitized, which is hard to ignore because Roman’s few comedic asides when acknowledging how the gang has become somehow immortal over the years is the meta-reflexive awareness F9 needs.

Of course, I still found myself enamored and aghast by the franchise’s trademarks enough where there’s no repeat downslide after The Fate Of The Furious (all smashy, lesser return).

When F9 indulges all the suitably nostalgic and fan-servicing beats, it’s a welcome return to big-screen thrills. The inclusion of Han (Sung Kang) is justice, but I’m here for the introduction of daughter Elle (Anna Sawai), who keeps kick-for-kick stride with Letty in an apartment scuffle. Daniel Casey co-writes a script with Lin that’s some Marvel-level hero porn with a focus on Dom’s hulking defenses in the name of his crew, and some moments—where he pulls an entire silo on himself and countless assassins—are inescapable outrageousness. You’ll get your Tokyo Drift reunions, hesity Helen Mirren, and one gonzo blast into a new stratosphere that tops Abu Dhabi skyscraper hops and tank busters. For every push factor that is Cena’s unintentionally hilarious villain stare, there’s a pull as rocket boosters are attached to Pontiac Fieros, or Dom spears a ziplining Jakob into a British storefront’s second-story window. Oh, and Michelle Rodriguez got through to Diesel because the ladies get fast and furious way more than in previous entries (a good look).

In the end, F9 might get more passes because it’s the first gigantic cinematic event that most viewers will see after countless video-on-demand rentals all pandemic. That's not necessarily a bad thing? Your eyes will roll, but your hoots and hollers will loudly declare another successful outing with Dom’s supersquad as they ponder themselves godlike entities. It’s the appropriate amount of absurd action extravagance that welcomes theater audiences back with muscly hugs from their favorite specialist agent family, one that’s worthy of raised Corona bottles afterward. Suppose you can stomach some of the cringiest narrative sentimentalities to date? In that case, F9 might just be an imperfectly exquisite reminder as to why we go to the movies—the stench of burning rubber, the pile of henchmen corpses, and my fear-motivated attraction to Charlize Theron.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.