When did you realize The Fast and the Furious franchise was a work of art? The majority would answer Fast Five, in which The Rock barged in to shepherd the transition from drag-racing thriller to action/adventure blockbuster spectacle. I was a late bloomer; Fast Five is great but it has nothing on Furious 6, when the series finally closed the loop. The chronology hinged on Han, the charming Japanese drift king, who we know must die in Tokyo but from 4-6 is alive, well, and very much in love. The climax of Furious 6 provides the circumstances for Han’s death then we circle back to that scene...only it’s refracted to be a grand act of revenge. In lesser hands, it would’ve been a contrived retcon. As executed, it was a brilliant display of grand mythologizing.
There are dumb blockbusters, and then there are blockbusters that feature action setpieces that should be dumb, technically are dumb, and yet, executed at such a high level that they are nothing less than fucking awesome. Michael Bay was once the master of such alchemy. In July 2003, he peaked with Bad Boys 2, an instant classic action thriller in which the local Miami narcotics cops of Bad Boys  are suddenly adept at infiltrating Cuba and dodging flying cars in high-speed highway chases. I saw the DNA of that same highway chase in Fast Five’s climactic heist, a sequence that seemed batshit then but is as quaint as Johnny Tran stealing Toshiba DVD players now. Since Dom stole a titanium safe with supercars, those same whips have faced down tanks, flown across Dubai skyscrapers and now, here, skidded around submarines on the surfaces of Iceland. In the Fast and the Furious, the plot and the action exist in a suspended state of ascension over the shark, the only question is how high, as long as the characters and their honor-among-thieves blood-is-thicker-than-diesel-fuel familial code stays grounded.
The adventures of Dom and his family has become as episodic as any Mission Impossible, fuck it, even Bond—shaken Martinis = ice cold Coronas; Ludacris = Q; Helen Mirren volunteered her talents for this one so don’t be surprised if Dame Judi hollers for Fast Nine. It should be formulaic by this point...which is precisely why I applaud the fuck out of everyone involved—four-time screenwriter Chris Morgan, new director F. Gary Gray, etc—for swerving formula in favor of a blatant exercise in futility. As the marketing has been excited to give away, Dominic Toretto betrays the family in this go-round, inexplicably aligning himself with the villain, a hacker played by Charlize Theron sporting even more inexplicable blonde dreads. Never mind that we, as viewers with brains, know it isn’t genuine and won’t last: the script itself doesn’t even try to play games. Within the first fifteen minutes we literally see Theron blackmail him. The only question is what she has and how he’ll flip the script. The answers to both of those questions are extremely satisfying, setting the table for what is quite possibly the most entertaining finale across the entire series. The story in-between, though, is less successful.
An implicit resolution didn’t necessarily mean the road there couldn’t have been a fun scenic route. Instead we get Charlize’s hacker Cipher, a villain with a diabolical scheme more nonsensically vague than any Bond or M:I villain before her and no real menace or scenery-chewing to show for it. For the majority of the film she’s, at best, the nagging voice in Dom’s ear from the safety of an...invisible airplane...at worst, he’s on that airplane with her, listening to aphorisms and proverbs about crocodiles and cavemen and instinct vs nature. Johnny Tran, the poser who ripped off Toshiba trucks for DVD players, was far better.
As for F. Gary Gray, unfortunately he holds his cards close until the climax save for a blood-pumping prison break, a brilliantly choreographed balletic duet between The Rock’s Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw. Remember Deckard Shaw? He terrorized our heroes just one film ago; even in a Just Go With It narrative environment successfully employed in the Fast series, the ease with which he Enemy of My Enemy’s his way into the team made me groan. It makes sense: with the Dirty Dozen thinned out from deaths both on-screen (Han, Gal Gadot) and off (RIP Paul, whose absence necessitates Jordana Brewster’s as well) Dom’s squad could use an infusion of new blood if we’re really going to make it to 10 films. But at least give us some hand-wringing over the gang working with a guy who’s killed friends of theirs very recently—don’t have Shaw and Hobbs trade threats with a thinly veiled wink that very nearly borders on flirtation.
The melodramatic pessimists will tell you Dom’s betrayal is, in effect the series betraying its core values, which in effect derails the whole movie. That’s willfully ignoring the last 20 minutes, which are truly something. Trailers have shown the submarine, including The Rock fucking diverting a goddamn torpedo with his bare hands. The finished product is even more awesome, including a sequence that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling save to say it’s going to rock DJ Khaled’s world. With Fate, the series took a swing because it can afford to miss. That the movie comes back together when the team comes back together is just proof that this series has no finish line in sight; shit, where they’re going and could very well head, they might not even need roads.
Fast Nine will enlist more A-listers, both action vets like Kurt Russell and thespians like Helen Mirren who want to have some snob-free fun. In this franchise world where superheroes, monsters and aliens reign supreme, the Furious family are swinging for the fences and keeping action popcorn alive. Someone has to—we still haven’t even gotten a Bad Boys 3 yet.