Everything that is worst about F9 - or to give its mildly bizarre, never-seen-onscreen full title, F9: The Fast Saga - is exactly the same as everything that makes it such a wonderfully ludicrous, over-the-top joy to behold. As the first honest-to-God watch-it-on-the-biggest screen possible Hollywood popcorn blockbuster in over a year, since the repulsive Star War: The Rise of Skywalker in December 2019, if I am not mistaken (a comparison that only serves to make F9 look that much better), the film's bar for success was pretty damn low: be full of convincing-looking CGI, be loud, have stunts, blow something up. And as the ninth film in a franchise that has somehow decided to actually go ahead and earn that word "saga" with this inexplicably expansive epic, rewriting the entire series to this point as something like the United States' own meathead Kalevala, the bar wasn't really any higher: just don't be as much of a missing-the-point slog as 2017's The Fate of the Furious, which somehow managed to ignore all of the series' trivial but unmistakable and easy-to-identify core competencies in favor of a very tiresome James Bond riff.

With F9, we instead get a very feisty and watchable and downright delightful James Bond riff, one so drunk on the series deeply po-faced love of the most sentimental possible interpretation of the word "family" that it has finally gone ahead and given beefy protagonist Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) an origin story for how he came to attach such all-encompassing messianiac importance to the concept. And if I had to point to the one specific reason that F9 feels, to me, like the ideal, perfect version of a Fast & Furious movie, the one where the phrase The Fast Saga could first be applied and feel less like hubris and more like, "yes, well, what else would you call it?" that's what would do it. Maybe that literal specific scene, which like everything else admirable about this franchise, is both indescribably ludicrous and so unabashedly heartfelt that I was cheering for every dumb second of it. But definitely the overall flashback structure, littered all throughout the film's wildly undisciplined 145 minutes, in which we see little twentysomething Dom (played by Vinnie Bennett, an excellent match for young Diesel) watch his father Jack (J.D. Pardo), die horribly in a racing accident, the event that led to the rupture between young Dom and even younger Jakob (Finn Cole), Dom's younger brother who has never been even vaguely hinted at in any of the films stretching back to 2001. The main plot is that Jakob is back, and he's now played by John Cena, a man who does not to any degree appear to share Diesel's DNA (though you can tell they put a lot of effort into casting Pardo, a man who somehow has a very odd mixture of features that do somehow make him look like he might have plausibly fathered either of those men); he is a rogue spy hunting for a weapon that will give him control over every computer-controlled device on the surface of the planet. But modern-Jakob is just a plug-in bad guy, there to put some wrinkles in the series' monomaniacally attachment to the idea of family, and to provide an especially obvious motivation for the face-turn that every single villain in this series to date has undergone (including, technically, Dom himself), with the only real question being if it will happen at the end of this movie, like it did with Dwayne Johnson, or if it will be the start of the next movie, like it was for Jason Statham. Heaven forbid I should spoil this solitary point of suspense.

No, if the meat and potatoes of the film is in the spy thriller extravagance, the big old goofy heart, as sloppy and ungainly as a St. Bernard trying to clamber onto your lap for tummy rubs, is those flashbacks, written with perilous earnestness by Daniel Casey & Justin Lin, directed by Lin with the hazy intensity of old memories halfway to being forgotten, and filmed by cinematographer Stephen F. Windon with the grainy pink diffusion of old photographs (the scenes are set in 1989, so the pinkness is all kinds of anachronistic, but no matter; it feels right, and feeling is the point). This is where it actually tries to become a saga, unifying past and present into one ungainly bloated blob of self-consciously overdone storytelling. It all worked for me, terrifyingly so, and in defiance of my good sense. But again, what is worst here is also where all of the film's personality lies. Like, take that running time. That is an asinine running time. But what a smart and disciplined screenwriter or editor would have taken out of that running time would be precisely the weird add-ons and go-nowhere conversations and comic relief that make F9 so charmingly and unapologetically itself. So praise be to the 145-minute running time, without which this would not be such a goofy attempt at grand-scale mythmaking; it would just be an action movie.

And it would, to be fair, be a very good action movie: the return of Lin to the director's chair has brought the series back in a huge way to top-notch action spectacle, after Furious 7 (directed by James Wan, who's a good filmmaker, but not at this kind of thing) was closer to "very fine" and Fate of the Furious (directed by F. Gary Gray, who isn't a good filmmaker) was just plain bad and mediocre. Hell, Lin and his action unit and stunt team might be up to the series' best work in some ways: there's a shocking level of clarity to even the most chaotic staging and editing (which I'd say happens during a fistfight in a Tokyo apartment) that puts us much closer to "thrilling" than the "inscrutable and noisy" that most Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking in the last several years has mostly been content to settle for. To say nothing of the moments when the movie focuses back on car-based action, something that hasn't always been the focus of the last few movies; it is, in this respect, something of a back-to-basics, stripped-down affair, which is fucking ridiculous to say of a movie that does some of the things this film does in its final act (including a choice of where to send a car, and what to strap onto that car's roof, that is so jaw-droppingly stupid that I cannot help but adore that the film was brave enough to make it; it exists in a downright hostile opposition to the idea that movies benefit from being realistic or even plausible, instead apparently asking if we wouldn't much rather have our movies be the gaudiest spectacle possible. And since I would much rather have that, I consider myself well-served). But even granting the sheer exhausting muchness of the film, the way that Lin and company scale back to a climax that mostly just consists of people in cars chasing a truck down the streets has a kind of clean, small-scale purity to it. The stakes are literally "the whole world", but it thankfully never feels that way; the stakes feel modular and easy to grasp, at the level of "now we must pull up level with the truck's tires" and "now we must get the henchmen out of the back of the other truck", and things of that nature.

It's all still garish and all; the back-to-basics approach I am describing here also includes what amount to magnet guns mounted to the good guys' cars, for example, and this is largely used by the filmmakers to facilitate lots of different ways to flip cars, shove cars into other cars, or pull cars through buildings. And happily, the filmmakers are using enough of that visual clarity I was talking about to make sure that all of the movement of all of the cars, both practical and CGI, is sufficiently burly and exciting. But there's no subtlety or grace here; is is the movie version of eating an entire pizza by yourself in one go. All of my praise basically sums up as, unlike most of the clamorous junk that passes for popcorn cinema nowdays, F9 is visually legible and its ideas for what ridiculous overblown fantasy nonsense it's going to build setpieces around generally consist of things I actually don't think I've seen before, and not just mildly regurgitated versions of twelve other movies. And thank Christ, its omnipresent self-seriousness about its shallow emotions means that it has little, if any room for the deadening snappy ironic humor that has infected most contemporary popcorn cinema (its humor is based in character, and somewhat sluggish in its delivery).

Still, there are just enough surprisingly lovely grace notes: the unexpected persistence of the flashbacks, the willingness to let go-nowhere conversations evolve at their own pace between actors who wear these characters like comfortably ratty bathrobes, the indulgence in moments that film is well are unbelievably silly but still secretly things are kind of really super cool also, and so it treats its ridiculous developments without a trace of mockery even as it doesn't appear to take them at all seriously. It can be pretty clumsy, but it's always honest, and it does a wonderful job of keeping all of those minutes rushing by from one energetic and brightly-staged series of cars smashing about to the next. Near the end, a child smashes a toy car into a toy space ship, and is praised fulsomely by an adult for doing so, and that's about where I am with F9: it has been a long time since a movie smashed its toys together with such winning verve and enthusiasm and contagious delight in what it was doing

Reviews in this series
Fast & Furious (Lin, 2009)
Fast Five (Lin, 2011)
Fast & Furious 6 (Lin, 2013)
Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)
The Fate of the Furious (Gray, 2017)
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Leitch, 2019)
F9: The Fast Saga (Lin, 2021)

Not yet reviewed
The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001)
2 Fast 2 Furious (Singleton, 2003)
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Lin, 2006)