Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
It’s hard to know how to lead with this one: Is F9 merely the movie we deserve now, or is it the culmination of the last century of cinema, the mathematically calculated quintessence of what movies have become? The film is both expansive and terse (can the next one simply be titled F? If so, where do you go after that?). It is both bathetically soulful and winkingly postmodern. It is engineered with the greatest digital effects possible and incompetent in matters of make-up and lighting. Its storytelling is inanely crude and impossibly complicated (full of callbacks to past entries and once again resurrecting characters presumed dead). The action beats are frequently funny and delirious—sometimes finding real joy in movement and cinematic possibility—and also so clodhopping that a heroine in the midst of a breakneck car/tank/motorcycle chase through a minefield can cry out, “The sooner we get out of here, the better!”
I don’t mean to be hard on F9; the press screening was the first movie I’d seen in a theater since February 2020, and I enjoyed having the lights go down, seeing a vintage Universal logo, and reveling in whatever director Justin Lin did to make the initial section (a flashback to traumatic events in the Toretto racing family) look like a movie from that era—better than most movies of that era, actually. There were funny bits, including the way the bad guys imprisoned Charlize Theron’s returning vixen-villain in a kind of glassed box in the middle of their vast evil lair, like a Hannibal Lecter in a free-standing aquarium. (Where does she go to the bathroom? Trick question. She doesn’t.) I enjoyed the aggressively dumbass business with giant magnets, milked for maximum effect in the second half of the film, thus re-writing the rules of the car chase. Also, there are scenes in space.
All of this happens, and can be enjoyed on some level. That’s why I’m suggesting that F9 can be talked about as a quintessence of the arc of film history; the people who made it know how to do things, and have learned lots of lessons. So much has been reduced to polished signposts of informational dialogue; and when the characters step outside of plot and talk about their feelings (which they do with surprising regularity), these moments feel like commercials interrupting the flow of a network TV show, little advertisements selling you moronic notions about love and comradeship and, of course, “family.” They are perfect sentimental garbage for the MAGA crowd, yet so over-the-top that progressives can find them all part of the campy fun, too.
The movie expects to be laughed at—not with—and invites the response. This is today’s entertainment: I can’t help thinking of the fraudulent wheezing that erupts anytime Mitch McConnell opens his mouth, flagrantly contradicting his own established principles and actions, but blithely chuckling along anyway—nobody is meant to take any of this seriously, except the slow and the very furious. Too much politics to lay on a silly movie? Should we just have fun and forget the world? Tell that to F9 star John Cena, who accidentally mentioned his awareness of Taiwan during the movie’s press tour, and then had to backpedal to pretend that he knew nothing about that. (In a perfect Fast and Furious bit of irreality, he made his apology in fluent Mandarin.)
Cena plays his role with the trace of self-mockery that the movie itself exhibits, and which Dwayne Johnson brought to previous chapters. That works because Vin Diesel’s central character plays it straight and invariably maudlin. But these personal qualities are dwarfed by the fact that whenever the two men enter the frame, they look like a collection of ill-fitting limbs and shoulders, bodies pumped with air, awkward unless in crazy motion. (Theron gets more movie-star action going simply by striding across the screen, in full frame like Fred Astaire, in one of her character’s final moments.) It seems likely that future generations will look at this era of film stars the way we already gaze upon the Mark McGwire era of distorted baseball bodies, and think to themselves, did people really go for this?
Orson Welles once titled a film with the letter F, but that was to reveal the magician’s fakery; his movie was playful, but with something grave at its center, something about the artifice involved in telling stories, something about the unspoken contract between storyteller and audience. F9 proceeds with the cheerful confidence that that contract is a joke, and the audience knows it’s a joke, so let’s just carry on with the branding. This is where we are. The sooner we get out of here, the better.
June 25, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.