F9: The Fast Saga (2021)
Has a multi-billion-dollar franchise ever had this much confusion and inconsistency with a name? The Fast and Furious saga, which is what we’re now calling it I suppose, began twenty years ago in 2001 and has undergone all sorts of titular irregularity. We’ve had different adjectives favored (Fast Five, Furious 7) and even gone the route of number-related wordplay, like 2018’s very soap opera-sounding The Fate of the Furious (spelled F8 in some incarnations). The ninth entry is titled F9, and by the logic of the previous sequel, I would assume that was intended to stand for “Fff-nine,” or likely “Fine,” and at this point an implicit admission of the franchise just not even trying to be relatable to any kind of recognizable pattern or order or even coherency. Alas, the title is apparently only supposed to be read as F-9, followed by the also soap opera-sounding The Fast Saga subtitle (sorry, “Furious,” maybe you’ll regain credit billing in the tenth movie in 2023). Maybe that will include the soap opera-sounding subtitle, “As the Wheels Spin.” It’s all just a curious way to handle name recognition for a twenty-year blockbuster franchise. F9 was delayed a year from COVID, a phrase that will be repeated a lot with upcoming fall releases, and after watching the 130-minute sequel, I think the franchise has finally exhausted its general appeal for me.
I’ll begin by stating my own apologist stance on the Fast saga. I’ve never been invested in this franchise for the characters (with the exception of The Rock because he is The Rock) or for the stories, and I doubt few others who even consider themselves fans would differ. I watch these movies for their ridiculous stunts and action set pieces that don’t just defy the laws of physics but make the ghost of Isaac Newton vomit. As long as those action set pieces delivered the goods, I was able to forgive much. And I have had to ignore or forgive a lot but until now I have found those set pieces able to clear an increasingly elevating hurdle, the baggage of these characters and trying to make me care even as they become impervious superheroes that have long left the earthbound trappings of a scrappy team of underground street racers lead by Vin Diesel back in 2001. Now Diesel is 54, every member of his beloved crew/family will never die even after they appear to die, and the filmmakers have decided to introduce a long-lost adult brother played by John Cena, never mind the fact that these two muscle men don’t look like they share a single shred of DNA. It doesn’t matter, and the question remains what even matters any longer for a franchise defined by its brain-melting excess? It’s a soap opera with spy missions. It’s dumb fun to eat popcorn to. That’s all.
I acknowledge the inherent absurdity in bemoaning the over-the-top nature of a franchise whose very appeal was its over-the-top nature. It’s hard to define but every movie universe has a line of sustainable believability. Once that line is crossed, you feel it. The Fast saga has played with this tenuous tonal demarcation line for over a decade. In the eighth movie, the cars were outracing a nuclear submarine and cracking ice floes and The Rock redirected a torpedo with his biceps. That’s crazy, but remember The Rock is a superhero among us mere mortals. In the seventh movie, the cars parachuted out of a cargo plane and drove through skyscrapers. In the sixth movie, they faced off against a tank. And yet, I happily accepted those flights of fancy because they kept me entertained ahead of that nagging sense of incredulity that they were able to somehow outrace. With F9, even with the return of director Justin Lin (Fast 3-6), it feels like the franchise finally crossed that line for me. I completely understand any reader that wants to point and shout “hypocrisy.” In the arms race of action imagination where the producers have had to come up with bigger and more wild set pieces, I think they have inevitably gone from self-parody into ironic self-aware self-parody and back into self-parody again. The best way I can describe it is with the two Expendables movies. The first was amusing action bravado self-parody but then the second film tried to be in on the joke, and all the winking “we get it too” meta commentary just sapped all the enjoyment out of it. The same thing happened with the two so-bad-they’re-good Birdemic disaster movies, with the first a sincere bad movie, and the second trying to be an ironic bad movie, and it just wasn’t the same. The appeal was gone. For me, F9 is the signal that this franchise has begun its descent into Birdemic 2 range and yes, they go to space in a space car and isn’t that what all us irony-drenched fans wanted? It’s like the disappointing be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning of Snakes on a Plane all over again.
Another factor that sank the movie for me was the inclusion of the long-lost brother storyline, especially considering the Diesel character is all about the vague platitude of family. In order to justify this significant oversight, the storyline has to resort to numerous flashbacks to fill in the sordid family details between the feuding brothers. I cannot overstate just how much I do not care about the characters in this franchise, so devoting more time to introducing complicated family histories with melodramatic flashbacks is not what I want to experience during the downtime in between the next explosion. By trying to take these characters and their relationships seriously, or seriously enough, we’re forced to slog through personal drama nobody asked for or actively desires. Better to embrace the soap opera absurdity and just have Cena show up and then every other set piece another long-lost brother shows up, and then we keep cutting back to the same singular flashback but now it’s revealed that another brother was there too previously unseen on the peripheral of the camera. The same thing goes for having to bend over backwards to explain the re-emergence of Han (Sun Kang), a character killed in the sixth/third movie by the-then bad guy (Jason Statham) that we like too much now to be the bad guy. I don’t care that he’s alive again, and the convoluted yet still unsatisfying vague plot to explain his fake death is unwanted as well. Apparently, the only character who will remain legitimately dead in this series is Gal Gadot (for now).
For the hard-core fans, there may be enough nitro juice in F9 to still provide a satisfying jolt of high-octane entertainment. Lin still has a nice command on action sequence visuals and there’s some large-scale carnage that tickles even while it’s undermining every concept of magnetism. Unfortunately, the joy I felt with previous action incarnations from the series was not recaptured this time. It just doesn’t feel as memorable, at least in a positive way. Going to space is memorable, but not in a positive way, unless they had to race a universe of aliens on the moon to save the Earth. I genuinely like Cena as an actor, but he’s far too strait-laced and dull here. Watch the recent Suicide Squad reboot to be reminded just how charming and comically talented he can be in the right role. Diesel seems to be putting less and less effort into every performance almost like a dare to the audience on how little they will accept. There were a few shots I watched where I felt like he was on the verge of going to sleep. The villain is lame, the movie has too many competing comic relief characters, and it’s all too long. I’ve been a defender of the blockbuster bombast of the Fast saga. I’ve considered myself a fan of its outlandish set pieces and ludicrous stunts. I’ve been able to ignore what didn’t work. Alas, the time has come where I can no longer do that. I just felt mostly indifferent and bored for much of F9, and its action highlights couldn’t save the extra emphasis on convoluted soap opera melodrama. Your mileage will vary as far as what you can forgive, but F9 feels like the appropriate off-ramp for me.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Suicide Squad (2021)
When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?
It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.
The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.
The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.
Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.
Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.
As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Why haven’t they been making these kind of Transformers movies from the beginning? Bumblebee is a scaled-down, character-driven family film where the bigger moments re about fitting in, finding your sense of self, and keeping your new alien robot friend hidden from your parents. Set in the late 80s, Hailee Steinfeld (Edge of Seventeen) plays a high school senior dreaming of a life beyond her neighborhood and family. The ticket out is a new car, which just happens to be an Autobot from another planet disguised as a VW beetle. Because Bumblbee had his memory wiped from a fight years earlier, he’s very childlike and endearing, and the interaction between the big robot and Steinfeld will rekindle more than a few memories for The Iron Giant, E.T., and other classic “boy and his dog” tales. There’s a real attention to the characters, big and small, that makes this the best Transformers movie. Not everything has to be about the next world-destroying cataclysm. There’s plenty of formidable drama in watching a teen girl navigate the world with an unconventional new friend. Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) graduates to the world of live-action with a terrific feel for the visual parameters and material. It helps that Knight gives his film a sense of scale without sacrificing coherency. The camera prefers wider shots and longer takes so the audience can follow the action. The movie also has a sly sense of humor it knows when it call upon, like a highly enjoyable John Cena who is baffled at his government’s open door policy to evil robot aliens: “They have Decepticon in their name. Is that not a red flag to anyone else?” This is a well-paced, sweetly heartfelt movie with good humor, good characters, and good action. If this is what happens when you strip Michael Bay from the franchise, then lock him up.
Nate’s Grade B+
Blockers (nee Cock Blockers, and changed on some posters to appear like Rooster-Shape Blockers) is like getting two fairly funny sex comedies in one. We have the perspective of the panicked parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz) who are doing whatever they can to thwart their daughters from seeing through their presumed deflowering pact on prom night. We also have the horny teen perspective from the teen girls (Kaitlyn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon). Each group has their own character arcs and comic set pieces, flunkies and wild supporting characters, and as they criss-cross over the course of one debauched night, lessons will be learned and, more importantly, feel earned. I was steadily impressed with how much Blockers does and does well, chiefly maintaining a sex positive attitude and never supporting the parents in their hysterical, generally sexist alarm. Each parent has to confront their feelings about really letting their daughter grow up, and that relationship leads to a sweet moment for each to acknowledge the error of their ways and grow closer with their child. If this had come out in the 80s or 90s, I’m sure the film would have adopted the parental viewpoint as correct. Hell, if it came out in the 80s, the fact that one of the daughters is gay would have been a source of shock or shame. Today, the father already knows and supports his daughter being a lesbian (he frets she’ll feel pressured to lose her virginity to the wrong sex). Oh, on top of all that, the movie is pretty funny from start to finish thanks to a deep cast of characters. Cena impressed with 2015’s Trainwreck and he shows yet again the promise of his heretofore-untapped comic resources. There is one comic set piece involving blind couple foreplay that feels downright inspired as it develops. Blockers is a raunchy sex comedy with more on its mind than yuks. It’s got a sweet center that allows the characters and their relationships to feel genuine. When you care about the people onscreen, it helps eliminate the sense of downtime.
Nate’s Grade: B
12 Rounds (2009)
This action flick bankrolled by World Wrestling Entertainment is an empty and aggravating movie. Let me list the ways this lamebrain action movie fails and flounders. And to be charitable, I’ll do it in only six rounds of concise action.
Round 1: John Cena is not an actor, like at all. The famous pro wrestler has a face that looks to be chiseled from granite.
Round 2: The movie strains credibility even for an action movie. The villain reappears with no explanation and begins a series of clever traps that must have involved massive man-hours to conceive and put into order, especially with every last variable taken into account like bus schedules.
Round 3: The villain is totally non-threatening in every capacity. He acts like an impish teenager instead of a devilish rogue. At one point, I kid you not, he’s rolling around on a bed while he taunts Cena over the phone, like he’s gabbing to a girlfriend. The fact that this dude is a criminal mastermind makes everybody dumber.
Round 4: The villainous M.O. is a shameless rip-off of Die Hard with a Vengeance. I repeat: a rip-off of the third freaking Die Hard movie, which isn’t terrific anyway. Every little game, every little round, is a puzzle that leads to the next puzzle, and Cena must figure it all out before his time runs out. And it’s all an elaborate ruse to distract the police so that our bad guy can pose as a Federal Reserve moneyman and steal from a bank, more or less just like Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Round 5: The director is Renny Harlin, whose last watch-able movie involved super intelligent psycho killer sharks. His action choreography relies all too heavily on ridiculously tired action tropes, like having Cena leap hundreds of feet from a helicopter to land safely in a rooftop pool. The erratic camerawork does no favors, aping the visual style of better movies. Even Harlin himself has done everything here before and better.
Round 6: The bad guy blames Cena for his girlfriend’s death and thus puts him through this day from hell. He blames Cena instead of blaming the driver of the car that plowed into her, his girlfriend for choosing to run right into the path of an oncoming vehicle and for being complicit in a murderous jewelry heist, or even himself for putting everybody in danger in the first place. His motivation is fairly faulty. He might as well blame the manufacturer of the automobile for lackluster brakes.
I’ll cut it off from there to be merciful. 12 Rounds is a classic example of a cookie-cutter, brainless, preposterous, and un-inventive action movie that typifies the Hollywood assembly line. It’s ludicrous from start to finish and your eyes will glaze over from watching such stolid action scenes without a hint of creative impulse.
Nate’s Grade: D
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