Every Fast and Furious movie strains credulity, but F9 shatters it so completely, even the production’s own characters have noticed. In the ninth main installment of one of Universal’s most durable film franchises, Dominic Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) and his trusty band of drag-racing ex-cons are so indestructible that they ride out bullets, land mines, and the void of outer space. (I repeat: Outer. Space.) No wonder the crew member Roman (Tyrese Gibson) starts questioning whether they’re immortal. “We are not normal,” he asserts at one point, holding up his bullet-hole-ridden shirt as evidence.
He’s not wrong to be perturbed: F9’s ludicrously choreographed set pieces cement the Fast franchise as a full-blown farce. The unhinged action scenes aren’t just outrageous; they set up punch lines. Early in the film, Roman’s first near-death experience—his car appears to squash him—is played for laughs. One of the car chases—arguably the nuts and bolts of a franchise about speedy, angry vehicles—hinges on a character’s comic inability to drive. And just watch the way the characters move through the Fast-verse now: Dom and his teammates careen through the air, bounce across the tops of cars, and recover from crashes like Wile E. Coyote.
After nine films, one spin-off, and two decades upping the ante on physics-defying stunts, perhaps it’s only natural that the Fast saga is beginning to resemble Looney Tunes in its embrace of physical comedy. Sure, the Fast films have always been a little silly—would there have been a sequel called 2 Fast 2 Furious if they weren’t?—but this is the one during which I’ve laughed most consistently.
F9’s pivot to comedy has a cost: It’s hard to have stakes when no one’s truly in danger. The fan-favorite character Han (Sung Kang) returns from the dead in F9, and although he’s a welcome sight, he barely factors into the story. He makes a splashy entrance, participates in thinly reasoned flashbacks that explain his survival, and provides the crew with the next step in its mission. He doesn’t add to the narrative again until midway through the credits. The franchise’s previous resurrection—and of course Fast has had more than one resurrection—brought back Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty as an amnesiac working for a rival crew, a twist that planted the seed for the films to become about loyalty. Han’s return offers little more than a handful of wisecracks and a setup for a sequel. This isn’t justice for Han.
F9’s insistence on levity is only more noticeable for how emotionally resonant the plot could have been. Dom’s never-before-mentioned brother, Jakob (John Cena), is working with the cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) to find a device that can hack into—sorry, this part of the plot doesn’t matter. What matters is that Jakob has been wounded by Dom’s abandonment, thus reminding the audience that Dom can be hypocritical when it comes to his sacred code of family, and maybe even cruel. These ideas—of brotherhood and its supposedly unbreakable bonds—form the emotional foundation of the Fast franchise and have been consistently explored and interrogated even as the films started aiming higher with the stunts. Yet Jakob spends more time during F9’s approximately two and a half hours being roasted by Cipher and dodging high-tech magnets than confronting Dom.
Fast is not the only franchise whose self-aware comedy overshadows its emotional stakes. Godzilla vs. Kong introduced its climax with a punch line, a far cry from the film series’ grounded beginnings. The Jurassic World films highlight their characters’ comical reactions to dinosaur attacks more than they do the hubris of humanity, as the original Jurassic Park films did. Even Mission: Impossible, a franchise lauded for shooting practical stunt work, has begun nodding at its preposterous nature. Perhaps Marvel is the culprit—its films have long accentuated action scenes with quips and banter. Or perhaps, with an audience bred on the internet, mainstream entertainment is doing it for the memes.
Yet what set previous Fast films apart was their versatility: From Fast Five onward, these films trained their narrative focus on the importance of a found family, even when the cars began sailing between towers and dropping from planes. The warmth of the cast’s lived-in chemistry, plus the joy of the daring set pieces first introduced by the director Justin Lin, made for a unique combination. These sequels weren’t humorless, but their jokes served to emphasize the crew’s camaraderie. F9’s over-the-top tomfoolery, including a random zinger about Roman and Tej (Ludacris) resembling Minions, is little more than an empty wink at the audience.
Perhaps there’s no greater indicator of the franchise’s absurdist route than the treatment of its once-revered cars. The first three movies fetishized them; the heist-centric sequels made them personality extensions of key characters. When Dom launched them through the windows of skyscrapers, he at least felt a little bad. But in F9, cars are largely props for visual gags. They are contraptions to get squished, blown up, or sent into the atmosphere. A franchise about car fanatics that no longer cares for its cars? That might be the film’s most revealing joke.