Friday, June 25, 2021

Movies By The Numbers: Fast & Furious 9 - The Fast Saga

When does a guilty pleasure stop being guilty?  For the last two decades, the venerable Fast & Furious brand has entertained audiences the world over with its sense of humour, ensemble-cast action comedy, frequent emphasis on practical effects, and over-the-top ridiculousness.  Stupid ideas are acknowledged as stupid in-universe, but fully committed to by both the characters and the filmmakers.

Yet underneath all the silliness, there is genuine heart.  Approachable, likeable characters, whose lives (and deaths) mean something.  Characters who, in spite of everything and for better or for worse, have been a constant part of popular culture for the last twenty years.

Every Fast movie is a good jumping-on point, with any backstory or lore important enough being mentioned in dialogue or shown in flashback.  Knowing nothing going in, you will still have fun.  Fast & Furious 9 takes things even further by carefully using (and expanding on) two decades of Fast lore.  There are some very, very deep cuts, great cameos, plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-it treats for eagle-eyed fans, and for those heavy into the F&F lore, brace yourselves.  If you have a soft spot for F1 (and yes, even F3), you might have your heartstrings tugged a little.

From the very first shot's colour palette, and vehicle and costume design, I immediately knew that it wasn't set in the present day, but a flashback to a traumatic moment only talked about in F1 and never seen until now.  Even the very last shot and mid-credits scene are purely for the long-time fans.

But can it stand on its own, without any knowledge of or reverence for the brand?  Absolutely.  When CIA spook Kurt Russell's spy plane goes down deep in enemy territory carrying secret cargo, Vin Diesel's retired international vehicular-themed heist crew goes in after him.  But Vin comes face-to-face with a ghost from his past: his estranged (and villainous) brother, John Cena.  Vin's spent the last twenty years saying how important family is ("You never turn your back on family... even when they do"), yet here is a mysterious brother we've never heard about!  Dark secrets are revealed, familiar faces (friendly and otherwise) make their return, and so do some long-absent characters.

Some lament the series' steering away (pun intended) from its street-racing roots; those people are nuts.  The brand has always been a product of its time, and as such, cannot recapture the mood of the turn-of-the-millennium car scene -- other than flashback scenes set in that era, of course!  If you liked Fast 1, you might enjoy F9's scenes set before the events of F1... and be surprised at how much world-building they've accidentally or at least unintentionally done in the last two decades.  We get to see what is arguably the most important street race in the brand's history, and it's filled with nods to the past.

Not to say that F9 is grounded in the trying-too-hard-to-be-gritty tone of F1 (or F4, for that matter).  Expect plenty of throwbacks, recurring lines, running gags, series staples, and the logical extreme of the brand's over-the-top ridiculousness -- and I don't just mean Dame Helen Mirren drifting and J-turning a supercar to shake the London rozzers.  It's so goddamn perfect that you just need to see it for yourself.

Long-time Fast fans rejoice as fan-favourite character Han Lue (aka "Han Seoul-Oh") returns, portrayed once again by the always-cool Sung Kang.  Such a beloved character that despite being killed on-screen in F3, he would appear in F4 (and the surprisingly-introspective character piece short film set before it), F5, and F6, with the franchise's timeline retconned accordingly.  Han is back, equipped with another black-and-orange car (albeit nowhere near as nice as the Veilside RX-7), an explanation as to how he lived, what he's been up to, and more importantly, no patience for villains.  Jordana Brewster's character Mia, sister of Vin Diesel and John Cena, has more of a hands-on role this time, beating the crap out of dudes with Michelle Rodriguez.  And even characters you might not have liked the first time around, well, it's good to see them again, and they are used surprisingly well.

Fast 9's subtitle of "The Fast Saga" might sound pompous as all hell, but that subtitle is completely deliberate.  F9 explores and deepens the lore of this wacky brand with genuine heart and plenty of surprises.  Young actors in pre-Fast 1 flashback scenes really did it for me.  F9 explores the past and brings the Family together into the present... and sets up for the future.  I honestly shouted "OH SHIT" in the theatre during that mid-credits scene.

Fast & Furious 9 is more than capable of standing on its own, but its main strength isn't its amazing globe-trotting action or huge stunts.  Its biggest strength is its heart.  The love for its history.  The love of its characters.  The love for the fans.  F9 is a thank you to everyone who has enjoyed this ridiculous brand, from those just starting to those who've been here for twenty years.  There's really something special to this movie, my friends.

And I'll tell you all about it when I see you again.

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