'F9' is a 'wild ride' but far from the franchise's best showing
"F9" has raised the bar on ridiculous action sequences and "soap opera drama," critics say.
Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel star in Universal's "F9."
In a time when franchises reign supreme at the box office, Fast and Furious may have hit a speed bump.
The ninth installment in the series about strong family ties and high-octane car racing, Universal's "F9" has raised the bar on ridiculous action sequences and "soap opera drama," critics say.
The Fast and Furious saga has had its critical highs and lows since the first film was released two decades ago. The films center on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his family and his chosen family. At first, the action films largely concerned illegal street racing and heists, but have grown to include high-stakes global missions that have turned the beloved scrappy racers into spies.
The physics-defying stunts that have become staples of the franchise are grounded by the rag-tag team of characters, which features a diverse collection of actors including Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel and Sung Kang.
In the latest feature, Dom is living a quiet life off the grid with Letty (Rodriguez) and his son, when his crew is brought back together to stop a skilled assassin and driver, named Jakob (John Cena). This adversary turns out to be Dom's estranged brother.
As of publication Thursday, "F9" held a 62% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 114 reviews. As more reviews come in, that score could change. If it dips below 60%, the film will be considered "Rotten" on the site.
"The title doesn't lie," wrote Darren Franich in his review of the film for Entertainment Weekly. "'F9' isn't bad, and it's not good. It's just fnine."
The film, which debuts Friday domestically, was released internationally last month. It has already tallied more than $300 million in ticket sales, including more than $200 million in China.
Here's what critics had to say about "F9."
"If you're turning up for a world-class script and character development, perhaps stay at home with Netflix," George Simpson wrote in his review of "F9" for Express. "But if you're up for some ridiculously entertaining action set pieces and you're willing to suspend belief, then grab the popcorn and get ready for another wild ride."
"F9" dials up the action, pushing Toretto's crew to the limits of physics with death-defying stunts. From speeding through a field of land mines to snagging a falling cable on a car to glide across a canyon like Tarzan, the latest Fast and Furious film is all about spectacle, critics say.
"What would be a 2 star film is saved by 4 star action, hence our 3 stars overall," Simpson wrote. "Fast and Furious 9's high-octane set pieces really are terrific fun and even led to spontaneous bursts of applause in our cinema audience."
John Cena and Charlize Theron star in Universal's "F9."
While "F9" uses the "family" thread of the previous films to ground the story in some reality, the out-of-this-world storytelling leaves much to be desired for some critics.
"Something special drained out of this series when the heroes transformed from crusading car-heisters into world-saving explodo-spies," Franich wrote in his review. "Much of the' F9' story happens because Mr. Nobody tells various somebodies to do various somethings. I don't want my heroes to do things because a generic espionage manager tells them what to do. I want them to do things because they feel a passionate need to do those things..."
As the series has pushed the limits of its stunts, it's also pushed the limits of its narrative.
"Inventing a new sibling out of thin air is how soap operas fill time in season 27," Franich wrote.
Cena's physicality is enough to go one-on-one with Diesel, but the charm the actor has shown in other projects like "Blockers" and "Trainwreck" is notably absent, critic said.
The character's motivation, a contrived notion that he's trying to step out of his big brother's shadow, is "just goofy enough to be interesting," Franich said. But his villainy is weighed down by the return of Cipher (Charlize Theron) and the addition of money man Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen).
"F9" could benefit greatly from its exclusive theatrical release. A number of critics, including San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle lauded the film for being "too enormous to be streamed."
"It's huge, it's stupid and it's wonderful," he wrote in his review. "It's a total blast and an invitation to put your mind into suspended animation for two giddy, ridiculous hours. If you're looking for a movie to escape into, you cannot do better than 'F9.'"
Yes, the action doesn't obey the laws of physics. But, that's just fine, says LaSalle.
"The imagination of the filmmakers is further unbound by their willingness to be outrageous," he wrote. "Early in the movie, Vin Diesel's Dominic Toretto drives off a cliff. So what? Anybody can drive off a cliff. But Diesel drives off a cliff and steers the car in midair. You can't find entertainment like this elsewhere."
Still from Universal's "F9."
A sequence in which two members of Toretto's team get slung into space in a make-shift car rocket may be a bit too absurd for some moviegoers.
"We're thinking: Is this when the Fast and Furious series jumps the shark?" Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review of "F9" for Variety.
"Not so fast. At that moment, there's no doubt that the movie walks right up to the shark, takes a good hard look at it, maybe even climbs aboard it, but doesn't totally, fatally jump it," he said. "For one thing, there's way too much going on apart from that borderline ludicrous space-camp interlude. But I'm not sure if that's the kind of close call 'F9' wanted to be remembered for."
The Fast and Furious saga has certainly come a long way from its humble street racing roots. But has it gone too far?
"Sometimes, when you least expect it, a successful franchise will essentially morph into a different series," Gleiberman wrote. "Over time, the 'Mission: Impossible' films became Bond films. The 'Fast and Furious' films have become 'Mission: Impossible' films."
"But 'F9' isn't constructed around an exciting mission," he added. "It's built around Vin Diesel and John Cena playing out the angst from the Toretto brothers' past. The family plot 'works' (even as you're aware of how thinly written Cena's character is), but it's not enough of an anchor; it's more like an excuse. This series didn't need more 'heart.' It needed everyone onscreen to get up to speed."
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of "F9" and owns Rotten Tomatoes.