By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
I settled into my seat for “F9,” expecting nothing new from the long-running “Fast & Furious” franchise. I was not wrong. Over 145 minutes, I got a lot of slam-bang action, a lot of stuff blowing up, a lot of utterly unbelievable stunts that push the franchise further towards comedy. What I didn’t get was one even vaguely original idea, stance, angle, or sentiment.
Frankly, “F9” left me more than disappointed. I felt good being back in a movie theater after 15 months. The Regal Cinema’s buttery popcorn had me smiling, ditto the reclining seats, once I re-figured out how to work them. But this onslaught of ideas laundered to see-through thinness, photocopies of photocopies of something that might have looked fresh 20 years ago, reminded me with a wince how formulaic entertainment, asking nothing from the audience and giving back less, represents a substantial portion of what we have to look forward to in our reopened world.
Our story, what there is of it, opens once again on Dominic “Dom” Toretto, played by Vin Diesel.
He’s trying to hide away from the world with his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his young son. Naturally, hiding lasts only about 90 seconds. The rest of his old crew shows up and demands his attention.
This time, it’s the pursuit and capture of a super-secret, super-powerful device which allows its possessor to conquer the world. We’ve all seen that before. Securing it from the bad guys involves trips to the far-flung patches of the globe, close calls, narrow escapes, and the team pausing at crucial intervals to discuss their long-running relationships with each other, and decide that everybody’s actually pretty cool.
Justin Lin’s a solid capable, director, but with this script, co-written by Lin with Daniel Casey, he doesn’t give himself anything substantial to dig into. Sung Kang, playing the seemingly-immortal Han Lue (a role he originated in Lin’s film “Better Luck Tomorrow”) pulls out the charm. His own wild story seems borderline-believable and heartfelt—he could have improved the movie with even 10 more minutes of screen time.
Also worth following—newcomer Anna Sawai, a New Zealand native, part Japanese, who went from playing “Annie” in the popular stage musical, to singing with the popular J-Pop ensemble FAKY, to starring roles as a female ninja (“Ninja Assassin”) and a burgeoning career woman (“Pachinko”). She’s fleet, sleek, and captivating. I’m expecting more from her.
The one and only new wrinkle in this installment stems from the discovery of a long-lost brother to Dominic. Jakob (played by John Cena) feels humiliated by Dom and is determined to do everything the exact opposite of Dom. So when an opportunity to conquer the world arises, Jakob naturally jumps in, seeking validation and destruction of Dom into the bargain.
But even this comes out stilted. The film holds not one line, not one emphasis, not one pause, that hasn’t been plucked out of a Hallmark card and then thinned, stretched, and faded from overuse elsewhere. The motors roar, the soundtrack blares, the metal crunches. Justin Lin could direct this with his eyes closed.
I left the credits running and filed out to catch a bus. Two lunatics screamed at each other across Pike Street. A homeless man pushed past on an electric scooter. He had no money for the motor, so he shoved along with one foot. Other homeless folks mocked him.
That’s our new normal, same as the old normal. The resurrection of garden-variety vexations, vacuous entertainment included. I wish I could scowl a little less.
“F9” is currently playing in local theaters.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.