Movies

F9 Doesn't Follow the Science. It's Great.

It's big, dumb, loud, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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The Fast & Furious franchise does not believe in science. In these films, cars can flip, hop, and fly with ease and even grace; roads are helpful but not necessary; and the drivers themselves are almost never seriously injured. The films exist in an alternate universe where there are no rules, no principles, no gravitational effects that cannot be overcome with some skilled driving and clever garage modifications. Strap a rocket to a Pontiac Fiero and send it to space? Sure. At the end of the latest entry, F9, that's exactly what happens. If anything, it's one of the more realistic moments. 

Realism has never been the draw for this series. If anything, the opposite is true: The series has only become more successful as its vehicular gymnastics have broken free from the demands of gravity. Although the franchise began two decades ago with a lowly B-film about illegal street racing—essentially an uncredited remake of Point Break with souped-up Hondas swapped for surfboards—it has evolved into one of Hollywood's premier mega-series, with a vast rotating cast of muscle cars and muscled men, and vehicles that leap from bridges and buildings.

Like so many of today's biggest movie franchises, it's effectively a superhero series, but with cars instead of capes. These films, in other words, are fantasies—big, dumb, loud, and largely enjoyable, and the long-delayed F9, which finally hits theaters this weekend, is no exception. And after a year with few real big-screen blockbusters, the franchise's brand of action fantasy is incredibly welcome. It's exactly the big, dumb, loud movie I wanted to see. 

If the gleeful embrace of vehicular fantasy is one key to the series appeal, the other is its earnest melodrama. These are superhero films, but also soap operas, in which the day-to-day bonds of friendship and family are always at the fore. The mantra of the Fast & Furious films—it's all about family—has become something of a hollow punchline, but in F9, director and co-writer Justin Lin finds ways to deepen the theme, grounding the movie's high-flying auto antics in familial tragedy and patriarchal pain. 

Over the course of 20 years and nine films, Dom (Vin Diesel), the series' glowering goliath of a protagonist, has become both a literal father and a figurative one to the ragtag gang of car-crashing misfits he leads. In a strange way, Diesel has come to play Dom as a classic Good Dad, wise, physically imposing, both tender and a little bit emotionally distant. There's something sad, almost mournful, in the way he holds himself, the slump of his shoulders, the weariness of his eyes—like he's carrying the weight of the world, or at least a billion-dollar Hollywood franchise. 

So it's fitting that F9 is built around a conflict with Dom's previously never-mentioned brother, Jakob, played by John Cena, a chiseled former pro wrestler with tree trunk–sized arms. Cena's burly presence is more a vibe than a performance, but it's a fine counterpoint to Dom's own dadly swagger; every time they meet, it's a battle of the biceps. The movie opens with a canned lesson from their father—who in a formative moment dies in a car crash—saying that what really matters in life is being the bigger man. The Diesel/Cena conflict seems to take that idea both seriously and literally. 

I will not attempt to describe the plot of F9, because it is incoherent, nearly impossible to follow, and almost completely unnecessary. There is presumably a story of some sort here, but no one has ever watched a Fast & Furious movie for the plot. These movies exist for the scenes—the zany, laugh-out-loud-at-how-absurd-this-is sequences of vehicular mayhem. And this movie has them. 

For example, F9 features an extended bit in which a custom-modded muscle car that—somehow? Has been dropped into Central America? With a bunch of other muscle cars? And is being chased by a private army? To find a biologically controlled super-hacking doodad-McGuffin? Because…sure?—speeds off of a cliff, then fires a grappling cable into the cliff wall, which it uses to change trajectory in mid-air, crashing loudly but safely onto another cliff across a ravine. This happens shortly after a separate muscle car driven by the bad guy careens off the same cliff…only to be caught in mid-air by a stealth fighter with a giant magnet array. If you expect logical justifications for any of this, you've come to the wrong movie. (The big magnet gets deployed again, however, with predictably preposterous results.) 

None of the film's vehicles move like conventional crafts; they accelerate, stop, and make turns like nothing an aerospace engineer could possibly explain. Maybe all those UFOs we keep hearing about are just dispatches from the Fast & Furious dimension. 

The audacious absurdity of these sequences is precisely the point, and the movie knows it. If anything, the franchise has grown even more self-aware. Throughout the film, the comic relief duo of Roman and Tej (Tyrese Gibson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) engage in an extended dialogue about whether, after so many improbable escapes, they're invulnerable or just lucky. Toward the end, as they're rocketing the aforementioned boosted Pontiac Fiero into outer space in order to hack a weaponized satellite that could grant the villains control over all computer systems on the planet—I told you the plot was unnecessary—Tej declares, with a totally straight face: "As long as we obey the laws of physics, we'll be fine." 

It's funny because, well, you know. For on the contrary, nearly all of F9's best moments, and indeed nearly all of the best moments in the Fast & Furious franchise, come when the laws of physics are aggressively ignored. There is something both joyful and genuinely comforting about the way the movie resists being restrained by reality, in the combination of earnestness and exhilaration it exudes. There is nothing nasty, gritty, or nihilistic about these films; they are formulaic in the way that virtually all franchise entertainments are, but they are also built on a heartfelt commitment to big-budget cinematic escapism that's especially welcome after a year with so few blockbuster entertainments.

The movie's earnest fantasy worldview also applies to its melodrama, and its depiction of unbreakable and unshakeable bonds between friends and family. In particular, F9's includes a brief but surprisingly moving nod to the longtime Fast & Furious franchise character Brian O'Conner, now apparently living a tranquil domestic life as a happy father and husband. O'Conner, of course, was played for many years by the late Paul Walker, who died tragically in 2013.

The world of Fast & Furious films, in other words, is one where cars can fly and where people don't have to die. It's a big, loud, silly, more-than-a-little-bit-ridiculous world where the law of gravity is merely a suggestion—but in some ways, it might be a better one than ours. 

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