Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
If you had told me when I initially saw the original The Fast and The Furious at age twelve that it would inspire a massive franchise, now dubbed The Fast Saga, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nevertheless, it did just that, spanning eight sequels and one spin-off (thus far). And in what will be the final installment for now, we get to see what this franchise looks like 20 years on with F9: The Fast Saga (2021)! [WARNING: This review does contain MILD SPOILERS. Please proceed with caution.]
As cars do on occasion, the development of F9: The Fast Saga stalled out a couple of times. First, Universal Studios and the majority of this series’ producers — sans Vin Diesel, of course — decided to park F9 in favor of fast-tracking Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019). This decision infuriated Diesel and co-star Tyrese Gibson, but the former also held a grudge against Dwayne Johnson following the release of Hobbs & Shaw. The actor publicly stated that he would not be involved in the ninth installment if Johnson was. But, of course, Johnson moved on to arguably bigger and better things as he seemingly left this franchise in his rear-view mirror. A decision that definitely benefited Tyrese, because frankly, I don’t think this cat would be busy otherwise.
Thus, without Johnson in tow, the rest of the Fast family raced toward making the ninth installment, as did the director of six of the nine currently released films in this series, Justin Lin. Interestingly enough, Lin said he was inspired to return after he had an epiphany about how to bring back his favorite character, Han (Sung Kang), while eating at KFC. Now, call me cynical — while I’m sure some inspiration did come from fried chicken, I don’t think that’s why the director chose to return to the Fast lane. On the contrary, I believe Lin needed a gig, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Diesel himself asked Lin to get back at the helm. After all, the franchise’s star seemed unenthused to be working without Lin on The Fate of The Furious (2017). No matter the actual reasons behind Lin’s return, one thing’s for sure … he’s better suited to shoot action than Fate director F. Gary Gray.
Although Lin returned, one key ingredient to the majority of this franchise did not: screenwriter and co-producer Chris Morgan (of the upcoming The Legend of Conan), making F9 the first entry since 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) not to involve him. I have a theory that Morgan’s sudden exit from the series is yet another result of Hobbs & Shaw being prioritized over the film in review. Or Diesel’s powers as a producer, depending on how you want to look at it. Instead, Lin, along with his co-screenwriter Daniel Casey (Kin) and Alfredo Botello, came up with the story for this ninth entry.
F9: The Fast Saga finds Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) settled into domestic life on a farm with their young son. Alas, you can tell the quiet life has worn on them a bit as they both miss the adrenaline of living a quarter-mile at a time. The couple won’t have to pine for those days much longer, though, as they (and the rest of the crew) are called back intp the spy game after Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) is kidnapped during a mission. In attempting to rescue the master of espionage, the Fast family finds a terrorist has abducted their colleague with a penchant for fast cars and ties to Cipher (Charlize Theron). Worse yet, this new enemy turns out to be none other than Dom and Mia’s (Jordana Brewster) long-lost brother, Jakob (John Cena)! Now, the crew will have to find out what family really means to them!
I know, I know, upon reading that plot synopsis, you’d have no idea that Morgan was not involved as this franchise seemingly has no interest in being anything but super-charged spy flicks now. But even though this story sticks to the formula audiences flock to, F9 would once again stall. The film was initially slated for a May 22, 2020 release, but was pushed back twice thanks to the ongoing global pandemic. Thankfully, though, the movie did finally see its long-awaited theatrical release; one which lent some sentimentality as it meant F9 was released twenty years after the original film. So, what does this newest sequel do for the franchise?
Well, F9 proves one thing — the Fast & Furious franchise has come a helluva long way. That’s not always a good thing, though. Sure, the movie is a marked improvement over The Fate of The Furious, but that’s not saying much. Unlike that eighth film, though, the cast does seem to want to be here this time. Granted, it’s somewhat challenging to tell with Diesel as he appears to be playing Dom in his sleep now. The majority of the cast give serviceable performances, even if most of the jokes they deliver fall flat.
But there is one actor who does not work here. Big surprise! I’m, of course, referring to the newcomer John Cena. This pro-wrestler-turned-actor is the epitome of hit-and-miss. While Cena’s screen presence works well enough in comedies and had a rather impressive turn as Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad (2021), he falls painfully flat here. Every single time Cena attempts to recite dialogue, it’s like watching the world’s most uncharismatic human being attempt to string sentences together. Although, I suppose casting him as the long-lost Toretto sibling is fitting because watching Diesel and Cena share a scene is akin to watching a bad elementary school play. Nevertheless, for a narrative that’s essentially a NOS-injected soap opera, it should never be this dull.
But it’s also the soapy story that’s the issue. This flick is all about retconning and reiterating that no character truly dies in this series. Yes, you could accuse comic books of doing the same thing, but the difference is that character resurrections are to be expected in comics. Such tropes only work well cinematically in the sci-fi and horror genres. Every instance of doing so in this franchise makes me roll my eyes. Han’s return from his assumed death in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) has the same negative effect. That said, I know that Han is Lin’s lynchpin, so I’m not surprised that the filmmaker brought him back. The bigger problem, though, is that when you take potential character death(s) out of the running, there’s no suspense. Also, when you consider that the new villain is a biological family member, we all know where that’s going.
Outside of the action set pieces or the flashback sequences, which Lin beautifully executes, I find F9: The Fast Saga an absolute bore of a Franchise Implosion. This film is undoubtedly more entertaining than the previous sequel, but F9 is not entertaining enough. Why? Because the Fast formula and its characters are beyond tired. So much so that between Fate and this movie, I’m having increasing difficulty in finding continuing entertainment value in this franchise.
What makes F9 even more frustrating is that there’s a movie within it that could have proved to be a Franchise Expansion. Unlike any of the previous entries, F9 is the only movie to utilize a non-linear (in this case, specifically a flashback) narrative. It delves into the origins of Young Dom (Vinnie Bennett), Young Jakob (Finn Cole), and their late father, Jack Toretto (J.D. Pardo). This interlaced origin story could have been extended to feature-length, and we would have gotten something that we’ve not seen since the first film: a stripped-down, darker narrative based on racing, both on the track and streets. For me, this retconned origin was by far the most exciting and well-acted aspect of F9. But I know the studio would never go for such a humble feature-length prequel at this point.
Even though I didn’t get that movie, there’s no stopping this franchise. To date, F9 has earned $662.3 million at the global box office, making it the third highest-grossing release of this year. (And I’m sure it’s done very well on Premium “Theater at Home” VOD.) Moreover, Diesel, Lin, and company have already committed to Fast & Furious 10 and 11! Beyond that, Diesel sees potential in spinoffs that would explore more members of his character’s family. I ask you, how many “family members” could there possibly be left to meet? Is this spinoff going to be set at a family reunion? In any event, I’ll see you down the line to cover wherever The Fast Saga goes!
F9: The Fast Saga (2021) which is Now Playing in Theaters & is Available for Rental on Premium VOD!
Looking Back A Quarter-Mile At A Time:
The Fast and The Furious (2001)
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
Fast & Furious (2009)
Fast Five (2011)
Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
Furious 7 (2015)
The Fate of The Furious (2017)