To start things off on a positive note, I’ll say that F9: The Fast Saga is an improvement on 2017’s Fate of the Furious (and, goes without saying, 2019’s Hobbs & Shaw). After taking a break from the family following production of Fast & Furious 6, Justin Lin came back and brought back nearly every living character we’ve seen so far, including Tokyo Drift‘s Sean and pals, along with all the ones who joined this increasingly large crew in the two entries the director sat out (Queenie, Mr. Nobody, Cipher etc.), plus a dead character for good measure.
Yes, while it would have been nice to get the surprise in the film itself instead of in the marketing, Sung Kang’s much loved Han is also back, with a chunk of the film devoted to explaining a. how he survived and b. what he’s been doing all this time. Juggling this thread, plus the main plot of Dom fighting his brother Jakob (John Cena) over control of yet another doohickey that can do everything, PLUS the never explored backstory of how Papa Toretto died, is a task only a veteran like Lin could handle, I suspect, and he does a fine job of bringing it all together while also creating some of the series’ now trademark mega-action scenes (curiously, the best – a multi vehicle chase through a mine-riddled jungle and over a collapsing bridge – is the first).
But unfortunately, there’s one thing the filmmaker couldn’t do, and that is bring Brian O’Conner/Paul Walker back to the screen. As with Fate, Brian’s absence continues to hang heavily over the proceedings, and so while Lin has course corrected from that film, he was ultimately unable to change my mind that the series should have stopped after James Wan performed miracles to finish Furious 7 after Walker died halfway through filming.
Vin Diesel’s Dom Torretto may be the top billed star for these things, but Brian was the real heart of the series; the audience surrogate character who entered this world, and the common thread that united everyone in Fast Five (still the series’ high point, and likely always will be). When watching these last couple films, I just cannot ever buy that with all his connections, Dom still calls Roman up to help out on his latest globe-trotting mission; have the two characters ever even shared a one on one conversation? There’s a scene early in the film where Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) hear a car coming and go into panic mode, hiding their child and pulling guns out… only to discover it’s just Roman and the others paying them a visit. And yet, Diesel can’t be bothered to display even a sense of recognition, let alone remorse that he was seconds away from firing a gun on his “family.”
It’s this sort of thing that the series will never be able to overcome; no matter how many excuses they offer for Brian’s absence (this time he’s babysitting his own child AND Dom’s), it’s always going to feel awkward. And the increased reliance on bringing back old characters (like Shea Whigham’s Stasiak) for cameos, while likely an attempt to make up for the Walker-sized hole in the cast, merely draws more attention to it and other behind-the-scenes issues that dictate how these movies are written now (in this case, when Dom needs to get out of a jam, why is he calling Stasiak instead of Hobbs? Oh right, because Diesel won’t be in the same room as Dwayne Johnson). Hobbs & Shaw sucked, but at least it sucked on its own terms – I never once questioned or cared where the other characters were. One might say it’s a silly complaint for a film where characters routinely survive falling onto fast moving cars from ridiculous heights, but those things are consistent with the series’ internal logic, whereas Dom’s actions are increasingly motivated by what actors are willing/able to be in the same room with the actor who plays him.
But apart from all that, it’s at least a satisfying blockbuster action movie in its own right, with everyone getting their chance to shine (Rodriguez in particular has never had as much to do as she does here) and Lin offering plenty of scenery changes so that the film’s three big vehicle sequences have their own flavor. Cena is a solid addition to the cast, and while they still keep Charlize Theron confined to one or two locations for the entire thing, Cipher actually ramps up her villainous ways here instead of being like every other surviving villain in this series and joining their side. On his commentary track, Lin promises that this will be the last “world ending” kind of plot for the series and things will be more character driven for the final two films, and it’s clear that he intends Cipher to be the (or *a*) primary antagonist for those films, rather than follow the series’ status quo and have her join them to fight an even worse common enemy.
His track has a few good tidbits like that along the way, but he spends most of the time in more general terms about his reasons for coming back, why he loved being able to do this or that for whatever character happened to be in the scene at the time, “Justice for Han” (big bombshell – Kang was meant to return only for flashbacks; full on reviving Han was a later decision), defending the science behind the rocket (apparently, it’s more scientifically accurate than the magnet stuff), and praising his crew. If anyone out there believes him to be a tech oriented filmmaker who cares more about the action than his characters, this track will, if anything, have you thinking it’s closer to the exact opposite, as he mentions having several conversations with actors about even the briefest scenes but spends little time on “we shot this on a greenscreen using a plate that we shot on stage, those trees are digital…” kind of jargon.
I should note that his commentary is available on both versions of the film, though if you select “play commentary” from the audio menu it will default to the theatrical version. The longer cut has a handful of brief scenes that are missing from the theatrical, and he speaks a bit about debating whether to leave them in or not, and that he was sad to lose them, but curiously doesn’t say much about why they were ultimately excised. Pacing is probably the culprit, but at any rate I will say that as they are all character-driven moments, the scenes do improve the film somewhat. There are no other deleted scenes on the disc (even one he describes on the commentary), and on that note I should point out that if you, like me, were disappointed at how briefly Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody appeared (or that his fate was not only unanswered, but barely even questioned), you won’t get any answers here – his 60 seconds or so of screentime remains unchanged.
The other bonus features are a pretty standard lot of 3-5 minute featurettes, though many of them are grouped together as a sort of documentary called “All In” that runs around 45 minutes. It more or less walks you through the entire production, though each chunk isn’t noticeably any different than the ones that are listed by themselves. The best one (besides a fairly amusing gag reel, particularly if you are a fan of Cena’s other job) is one that tracks a day in Lin’s life during production, during which he only gets three hours’ sleep, spends his time being driven to the set on script changes, oversees editing and filming simultaneously, and even hits the gym to keep himself fit. Seeing all that and then realizing there’s obviously a lot of stuff the studio wouldn’t be showing us (i.e. dealing with the film’s reportedly irksome star) will give you a real appreciation for how committed Lin is to these things, and why it’s a best case scenario that he was lured back after sitting out for a bit.
But on the other hand, I went in thinking if anyone could truly bring this series back to its former heights, it’d be Lin, but as it turns out not even he could figure out a way to get around the fact that Walker was just as essential as Diesel. If I only equated these movies’ quality with how good the action sequences are and nothing else, F9 would likely rate quite high, but I’m here for the whole package, and the storytelling of these last few makes the simple Point Break riffing of the original look like high art in comparison. Even Cena as Dom’s actual biological brother can’t match the brotherly bond the Dom and Brian characters had, and despite the babysitting/”out of the life” kind of hand waving they offer, the real reason the latter isn’t there is something they’ll seemingly never be able to convincingly work around. The team is committed to two more mainline entries, and I’ll be there for them both, but at the end of the day F9 seemingly proves once and for all that focused spinoffs are the only real solution if they want to keep the brand alive for many years to come. The family keeps getting bigger, but it can’t replace what was lost.