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by Peter Sobczynski

"One Quarter-Mile Over The Line"
2 stars

Most action films these days have been designed to give viewers the feeling that they have spent two hours of their lives trapped in the middle of an active pinball game. Emerging from “F9,” I felt more as if I had just spent the previous 143 minutes (no—not a typo) trapped inside of an active pinball game that was being ritualistically beaten with another pinball game. Yes, I realize that we are talking about the “Fast & the Furious” franchise, an endeavor that has somehow ballooned from a story about a bunch of gearheads lifting DVD players and otherwise living life a quarter-mile at a time into an increasingly elaborate byzantine saga in which those same gearheads are now regularly charged with nothing less than saving the world on a scale rarely seen outside of the James Bond franchise. I admit that I have enjoyed some of the previous installments but the last couple of films—“The Fate of the Furious” and the “Hobbs & Shaw” spinoff that you may well have forgotten even existed—have pushed things to such excessive and ultimately unrewarding levels that it seemed as if they were having a private competition to see which one would go down as the series equivalent of “Moonraker,” the Bond film that infamously sent Bond to space in order to cash in on “Star Wars” and caused even the most indulgent fans to roll their eyes and mutter “Oh, please.”

Now comes “F9,” a film that is so ludicrously and preposterously overscaled in every imaginable way that it makes those previous installments seem like intimate chamber dramas by comparison. This time around, every single aspect has been blown up to such mammoth proportions that the sheer scale of the whole thing begins to become its own running joke. Alas, this is a film that demonstrates a whim of osmium throughout and even though we are clearly not meant to take it seriously for a second, the Brobdingnagian size of it all, coupled with its obvious desire to be the biggest and wildest film franchise ever, is so prevalent throughout that it almost feels as if the entire production is sitting right on your lap while you are watching it. The end result is more exhausting than anything else and while it will not doubt be as big of a hit as its predecessors, some fans may find themselves thinking that the saga may have finally pushed its luck just a little too far even before the climactic sequence that is actually partially set in—well, if you paid attention to the previous paragraph, you can probably hazard a pretty good guess.

For a film as bloated and amped up as this one is, the actual storyline proves to be little more than an ultimately inconsequential series of quick breathers in between the massive stunt sequences. It seems that the government once upon a time devised what would become known as Project Aries, a small geodesic dome capable of seizing control of the world’s computer and weapon systems and making whoever controls the device as powerful as a god. Belatedly realizing that this might not have been a particularly smoking hot idea, the dome was divided into two with each half squirreled away somewhere. Now, someone is out there looking for the pieces and before you can ask if this was the same basic premise of one of the “Tomb Raider” movies, the crew of former drag racers and miscreants led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) are jetting off on an around-the-world to retrieve Aries that lands them in locations as far-flung as Montequinto, Tokyo, London and, as part of the seriously crackpot finale (Spoiler Alert!), outer space, where the always-bickering Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), find themselves hurtling towards a satellite that needs to be taken out in a rocket-equipped Pontiac Fiero, a moment that finds the franchise either at last jumping the sharknado (a franchise that only took three installments to slip the surly bonds of Earth or paying homage to the classic Michael Nesmith tune “El Dorado to the Moon.” For long-time observers, there are also plenty of shots of people drinking Corona beer and a final cookout sequence where the characters talk about the importance of family (a word that crops up here about as often as a certain other “F” word does in Brian De Palma’s version of “Scarface”) before saying grace, no doubt thinking about the hundreds of people that they presumably killed along the way through their automotive hijinks and whatnot.

It is probably a good thing that the plot, for all of its surface convolutions, is pretty easy to grasp because most viewers will be too busy trying to keep track of the seemingly endless array of familiar faces who turn up here and struggling to recall whether they were in the previous films or if they are newcomers to the fold. For example, it seems as if John Cena must have been in at least one of them at some point but no, he is not only new to the proceedings but plays Dominic’s heretofore unknown younger brother Jakob, who is himself a rogue super-secret agent who is trying to get Aries in order to prove that he is better than his brother. Michael Rooker also turns up and while I was convinced for a while that he actually had appeared before, i think i just got my wires crossed with the character he played in the equally fender-headed “Days of Thunder.” As for the regulars, the series has now been going on for so long that when a familiar character turns up, it takes a moment to recall whether or not they were killed off in a previous installment. The cast list is such a pileup of names (even the “Cannonball Run” films seem paltry by comparison) that some of the best-known names are reduced to glorified walk-ons—Helen Mirren finally get to drive (awesome) while engaging in semi-flirtatious banter with Vin Diesel (less so), Charlize Theron’s super villain spends most of her time stuck in a glass case of emotion and Kurt Russell literally phones in most of his brief turn, hopefully collect. (About the only person who doesn't turn up in person is the late Paul Walker, whose character is still being kept alive in the story through ways that at this point are just becoming kind of weird and creepy.)

Yes, I am fully aware that the driving force of a film like “F9” is not so much in the plotting or character dynamics as it is the elaborate action setpieces. And yet, even those don’t quite come off this time around because director Justin Lim, returning to the series after having directed episode 3-6, tries so hard to blow away audiences with each successive scene that they end up losing whatever impact they might have had. Look, I have no problem with wildly oversclaed action scenes—I believe my venerations of the oeuvre of Luc Besson will serve as my bona fides in this regard—but there is a certain delicacy to such things that this film simply lacks. Most of the scenes on display here, although elaborately produced (though some of the effects are a bit dodgy in places), tend to feel more like increasingly gimmicky variations on stuff we have seen before—instead of a car hurtling through the sky from one skyscraper to the next, this one has a car speeding across a massive gorge on a rickety rope bridge that is swiftly collapsing behind it. it is all as frantic as can be but none of it is exciting—if some action films (like some of the previous “Fast & Furious” films) give one the feeling of watching enthusiastic kids at play making stuff up as they go along (albeit with a budget to rival the GDP of many developing countries), this is one makes you contemplate whether the kids in question might be candidates for Ritalin. (The film tries to make a joke of its excesses by including several moments where the characters offer their own self-reflexive comments on their increasingly bizarre adventures that only serve to call further attention to how ridiculous it has all become.)

For movie audiences who are just beginning to return to the multiplex after their extended hiatus, a film like “F9” could be just the thing that they could use right now—a wildly over-the-top spectacle that practically burst from the screen and laughs in the face of such antiquated concepts as taste, dignity, logic, sense or narrative coherence. Hell, I would be down for something like that under these circumstances but this one just pushes things so far beyond the line that I found myself resisting instead of succumbing to its alleged meathead charms and requiring something slightly stronger than a Corona when it was all over. I’m not saying that the next film in the franchise needs to be some kind of intimate chamber piece but at this point, the whole saga has just become too big, too unwieldily and too silly for its own good.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=30627&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/23/21 10:47:32
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  25-Jun-2021 (PG-13)
  DVD: 21-Sep-2021



Directed by
  Justin Lin

Written by
  Daniel Casey

  Vin Diesel
  Jordana Brewster
  Tyrese Gibson

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