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Vin Diesel and John Cena work out some family issues in 'F9."

My problem with the Fast and the Furious series was always that the movies were never silly enough. If you’re going to become a live-action cartoon, why not go all the way? Have the crew fight vampires and space aliens, perform in musical numbers, travel back in time and race in tricked-out covered wagons? F9 does go in this direction, as well as give Dom Toretto (Diesel) some backstory that explains why he’s always droning on about family. To both of those, I say: Better late than never.

The story begins with a flashback to California in 1989, when a young Dominic (Vinnie Bennett) is in the pit crew at a stock car race when he watches his father (J.D. Pardo) die in a fiery wreck. Blaming his younger brother Jakob (Finn Cole) for the accident because Jakob was the mechanic, Dom disowns him. In the present day, Jakob (John Cena) is an international spy who vows revenge by teaming up with the gang’s former enemy Cipher (Charlize Theron) and a bratty Nordic billionaire (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) to take over the world. Dom and his gang wind up tearing through the streets of London, Edinburgh, Tokyo, Cologne, and Tbilisi to stop them.

Also, Roman and Tej (Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris) go into outer space in a Pontiac Fiero strapped to a rocket. That’s the sort of wackiness I was hoping for, and the series gains a welcome bit of self-awareness when Roman seriously argues that he and his friends are immortal after emerging from all their escapades unscathed. I’m inclined to agree with him, especially since Han (Sung Kang) is resurrected after he was killed in the sixth movie. Retconning this development doesn’t help the movie’s bulkiness, nor do the repeated flashbacks to the Toretto boys’ youth. Cena’s wasted, too, in a role that doesn’t let him be funny. When you come down to it, the drama here and elsewhere in this series is pretty soft-boiled.

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Then again, who will care about that when we have cars with superpowered magnets turning everything metal into a projectile, including other cars? There’s also a comedic car chase when the gang’s British computer hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) is forced to pursue the billionaire in a delivery van, having never driven a car before. (“No one really drives in London,” she says.) She quickly becomes a menace to everyone on the road, and if Lin isn’t as good at comedy car chases as Edgar Wright, nobody else is, either. You might have thought that bringing back Han was a sign that the series was jumping the shark. It still might do that, but for the moment, F9 remains fresh and enjoyable for the series’ fans.

F9
Starring Vin Diesel and John Cena. Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Justin Lin and Daniel Casey. Rated PG-13.

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