'F9: The Fast Saga' Is the Perfect Combination of Heartwarming and Ridiculous

The Fast Fam just keeps getting bigger.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

About halfway through F9: The Fast Saga—or maybe it was two thirds of the way through, or maybe closer to the beginning, I don't know, time tends to dilate over the course of these films—John Cena, playing villain Jakob Toretto (Dom's brother,oooooh), swings stonefaced over the rooftops of Glasgow on an impossibly long system of ziplines, like some heretofore undiscovered rare jungle beast in a nature documentary. The stakes are high, it's in the middle of one of the great big action scenes this franchise has steadily become known for, speeches about family and betrayal have just been made, and yet it is genuinely one of the funniest things I have ever seen. The reason F9 is such a delight to watch is because the movie itself understands fundamentally how ridiculous all of this is, and leans full throttle into it.

Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) have just settled down in a nice farmhouse, determined to bring Dom's son Brian up as normally as possible, away from the bustle of their former lives. It's not long until Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) comes calling once again, informing Dom and his crew of a device known as Project Ares with the power to bring civilization as we know it to its knees. Their mission, if they choose to accept it, is to find the separate parts of the device before the bad guys do and hand it over to the right people. Simple enough, except for the fact that Dom's long-lost brother Jakob (Cena) is working for the baddies, and he knows exactly how to outsmart the Fast Fam at every turn. Car chases, armored tank flips, and makeshift rocket launches ensue.

What's most remarkable about this installment in the ever-expanding series is just how many characters from the franchise's past are brought back. If you've seen the trailers, you know that Han (Sung Kang) has been resurrected from the dead; Helen Mirren is returning as Queenie, mother of villains Owen and Deckard Shaw; and even Lucas Black, Jason Tobin, and Shad Moss (neé Bow Wow), who haven't been seen since The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, reprise their characters for a few key scenes here. And new friends abound, as Dom Toretto, Kim Possible-like, traverses the world on favors from old friends, or friends of friends he's assisted in the past. F9 is also determined to give Dom even more backstory than he already has, taking us back in time to show that fateful day at the racetrack when his father was killed in a car crash when he was young—and to also explain why he never once mentioned to anyone that he has a brother. "The worst thing you can do to a Toretto," he rumbles at one point, indicating emotion by clenching his arm muscles, "is take away their family."

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It's emotional, but never overly self-serious, with a winking sense of humor that says, yes, obviously you can't jump a car off a cliff and hook it to a long chain and ride the momentum all the way to the cliff on the other side of the ravine, but they can. Dom Toretto can. Dom Toretto, who uses cars as shields, as diving boards, as places on top of which to catch loved ones before they tumble to certain death. Where a lesser movie would stage an innocuous conversation between two characters in one room, F9 plops them down in a sleek sports car and whips them around in a car chase through the streets of a European metropolis.

The movie gets that these things are all silly, and it delights in the silliness in a way that is nearly always engaging and funny—aside from the banter between Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), which, as always, feels as if it was written by aliens with a rudimentary understanding of what humans think is funny. But even that sense of continuity feels comforting. Cena, weirdly, is the weakest of the bunch, his lines buried underneath jutting chin and stodgy WWE acting. He can be a great, hilarious screen presence (if you've seen Blockers you know exactly what I mean), but he leans way too far into melodrama here. It is a little odd when the many #epic facedowns between Dom and Jakob fall flat, but at least you won't have to wait too long for a car to smash through a wall to move things along to the next part.

These movies are silly, they're strange, and they're so divorced from their source that they feel like a different thing altogether. Fans complain occasionally that the franchise has been "MCU'd," and that's not entirely wrong. But, dammit, let Vin Diesel make one toast to his familia while flourishing a Corona, and there's suddenly something in my eye.

Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.