Fast & Furious 9 (2 stars)

Fast & Furious 9

It's the return of outlandish action as Vin Diesel and the gang screech back into cinemas

The Fast & Furious franchise prides itself on its large, ethnically diverse and ever-expanding family of stars but it has become overburdened with characters over the years and lacks the courage to trim the fat. However, following on from successful 2019 spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, starring series favourites Jason Statham and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Fast 9 removes those two major selling points temporarily from its ensemble. Given that their charisma has kept several of the movies afloat, it's a risky move.

Justin Lin returns to the fold (he's the director of instalments three to six) in a film that gives Vin Diesel a bit more room to manoeuvre as the sole lead. It delves deep into his character Dominic Toretto's past, unearthing a hitherto unmentioned brother, Jakob. Jakob is played as a young man by Finn Cole in several flashbacks, while John Cena portrays him in the present-day as a super spy and the chief adversary of the piece.

Jakob is out to assemble the pieces of a Marvel-style McGuffin – the Project Aries device, 'a weapon so dangerous it shouldn't exist for another half-century', which has the capacity to 'override and assimilate anything that runs on code'. Charlize Theron's bad gal Cipher smoulders and effortlessly outclasses those around her in a handful of key scenes, while the usual gang are also back on board (Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster), with an old ally exhumed.

Aside from a sequence where a crowd of women all wearing white inexplicably gyrate outside a country house as if they're incapable of independent thought, Fast & Furious 9 feels less sexist than previous efforts. Gibson's Roman is still remarking on the improbability of the team continuing to survive the absurdly dangerous predicaments and there's a general light-heartedness to his and the other supporting characters' scenes. And yet the film spends an insane and frankly exhausting amount of time bigging up Dominic's reputation (isn't he basically just a really dangerous driver?), without ever acknowledging the comparably 'legendary' skills of his crew – he certainly couldn't do any of this without the efforts of Nathalie Emmanuel's likeable hacker who, in a nice touch, we find out can't even drive, cos 'no-one really does in London.'

The OTT myth-making around Dom combined with Diesel's humourless and typically emotionally stunted turn creates a stark contrast between his scenes and the more appealing sense of irreverence elsewhere. Having a leading man on the same page as those around him – like the more tongue-in-cheek work of Statham and Johnson – would have improved things immeasurably. Cena himself has had some success with comedic material (in Blockers for example), though he's operating on the same po-faced level as Diesel here, making for a bland villain who is entirely motivated by his rivalry with his brother, despite never having appeared in the series before.

The story manages to be a whole lot of bad things at once (illogical, predictable, convoluted, simplistic) but fans will be in it for the outlandish action sequences and, some incoherent direction aside, it does deliver on those, taking things truly to another level, even by its own mad standards. However, spectacle without jeopardy, and therefore tension, just feels hollow and, when stretched over a shamelessly elongated, two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it can get pretty tedious.

Available to watch in cinemas from Thu 24 Jun.

Fast & Furious 9

  • 2 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 2h 25min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Justin Lin
  • Cast: Vin Diesel, John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang, Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron
  • UK release: 24 June 2021

Dominic Toretto and his crew join forces to battle the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they've ever encountered – his forsaken brother.