Fast and Furious 9

Vin Diesel and John Cena face off

Call it what you like, Fast & Furious 9 – or F9, or F9: The Fast Saga – is no good, a terrible disappointment in a franchise that in a 20-year run has managed to be one of the most reliable suppliers of screen fun, banter and action.

However, F&F has proved to be totally bombproof thus far, having survived the permanent loss of franchise mainstays (Paul Walker), temporary absences (Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster), a reverse takeover by Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham (who have now been shunted off to their own spinoff, the Hobbs & Shaw franchise). It even survived the loss of director Justin Lin, who picked up the series at a low ebb at F&F3: Tokyo Drift and took it on to glory, becoming one of the best action directors in Hollywood as he did so.

By the time Lin had got F&F6 in the can – probably the best of the lot – he’d transformed the oily road racers and their sudsy babelicious girlfriends into an A Team of elite operatives, the sort of people who might be on nodding terms with James Bond. The bad guys, meanwhile, had gone from being traffic cops to megalomaniac evil masterminds.

After taking a break for F&F7 and 8, Lin is back as director here, and as if to reassure us that all is once again well, delivers an action sequence in the early minutes of the film that is so audacious, ridiculous and novel that it’ll make you either gasp or laugh out loud, or both. That’s after a quick bit of “getting the gang back together” and an even quicker bit of introduction of the international megalomaniac bad guy, Charlize Theron returning in her familiar “because I’m worth it” Dr Evil role.

Letty on a motorbike
Action: Michelle Rodriguez as Letty

What does she want to do? Blow up the world, or something, of course. How’s she going to do it? Tech something something. It’s not necessary to know more and in any case F9 is far more interested in the backstory of Dominic Torreto (Diesel) and his dead race-hero dad, and the source of his beef with his estranged brother (John Cena), all explained in extended flashbacks seemingly designed to introduce Diesel’s son, Vincent Sinclar Diesel (who plays the young Dom), to casting agents.

Dom’s dad and brother, his daughter, his wife Letty (Rodriguez), the extended family of his crew, it’s all about Dom this time round, to the franchise’s detriment. Between still-breathtaking stunt sequences things really sag, with Brian Tyler’s soundtrack an aural analogue of what’s wrong – Tyler just has no idea how to fill in the gaps and so see-saws away with swathes of meaningless vamp. The cast manfully and womanfully do the same with a script full of corny wisdom about blood being thicker than water, bruh. This is the longest F&F yet and it feels every minute of its two hours 23 minutes.

There are still good things. Nice to see Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges aka Ludacris’s comedy double act being better integrated into the plot. This time they have agency! And also nice to see the women doing more action work – there’s something called “Untitled Women-Led Film” in the works, so Wikipedia tells us, so there’s a commercially cynical reason for that too. And Han (Sung Kang) is back from the dead. He was always one of the more enjoyable side characters and there might be a feeling that, Statham and Johnson having gone missing, a charisma injection was necessary.

In the “barely in it” category are Jordana Brewster, Kurt Russell, Helen Mirren (again with that terrible cockney accent) and Lucas Black, who was the main man in F&F3 and who, for unexplained reasons, was re-introduced in a cameo in F&F7 and seems to be being gradually folded back into the mix. Gal Gadot appears in a flashback intended to keep her place warm.

But never mind all that, there are car chases in a jungle, through a minefield, across a disintegrating bridge, and through the cities of London, Edinburgh and Tibilisi. And a car that blasts off into space! With that last one, the F&F franchise seems to have gone all a bit Roger Moore-era James Bond. There might be hope for it yet.

Fast and Furious 9 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Suicide Squad

Harley Quinn screams

The Suicide Squad, not to be confused with Suicide Squad from five years ago, fixes the mistake made by the 2016 movie, which got bogged down in plot. The Suicide Squad does that by not really having one. Or if it does it treats it as something to be vaguely referred to now and again, like a map by a driver who knows his way.

The driver here is James Gunn, who does just about everything right in this super-sequel follow-up to the Dirty Dozen of comicbook movies. The first film was quite simply terrible, though bursting with great things, a kind of satire on Marvel movies, if you wanted to see it that way, which not only lost its way in arcane storytelling but got weighed down carrying the baggage of its stars, Margot Robbie and Will Smith.

Smith has gone this time round, to be replaced by Idris Elba, as Bloodsport, boss of the Squad, and Robbie has been put slightly back in her box as the psychotic Harley Quinn – still important as a character, still brilliant as a performance – joined by John Cena’s Peacemaker (the “peace” of the graveyard rather than of “peace, love and understanding”), Ratcatcher 2 (Portuguese actor Daniela Melchior effective as a woman who controls rodents), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, underused, perhaps because the character’s ability to spray the world with killer polka dots is too out there, even for this film), and shark-with-legs King Shark (played by Steve Agee, voiced by Sylvester Stallone). Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, craggy, pumped, looks like he’s been gorging on human growth hormone) joins them later, along with Alice Braga as the leader of a group of South American rebels trying to storm the enclave of the junta that’s taken over her tiny island country of Corto Maltese.

The Suicide Squad
Meet most of the team

A military coup in South America isn’t really the territory for superheroes, even ones this shonky, so add in some Nazis and a malevolent extraterrestrial, the connection between the junta, Hitler refugees and outer space being a mad-scientist character called Thinker (Peter Capaldi with what look like old radio valves stuck on his head).

Back at base, doing for the Squad what Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury does in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Viola Davis, again a standout as the badass with a “motherfucker” for every situation. Funny. The tone is relentlessly Guardians of the Galaxy, which Gunn also wrote and directed. Quippy rather than hilarious, but non-stop quippy, and with a focus on detail that really makes a difference. At one point the Squad go to a nightclub and every one of the extras looks exactly as they should, like sweaty and slightly skanky party people having such a good time they look almost bored with it all. And if you loved Groot’s vocabulary consisting of about one word (“Groot”), chances are you’ll also warm to King Shark’s command of the monosyllable.

As said, Polka-Dot Man feels a bit surplus to requirements but the rest of the cast interact brilliantly as Gunn runs the Squad through the superhero movie playbook – gunfight, fistfight, Reservoir Dogs slo-mo group shot, one-against-many encounter – with everyone bantering, bickering and quipping as they go. Robbie and Elba get the best of it, as you might expect, Elba being particularly good, and partly because he’s using his own London accent, a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone which makes every “For fuck’s sake” ring true.

It’s not really what it is, it’s how expertly and relentlessly well it’s done. Gunn is having fun, and breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, and in different ways. At one point, when the giant starfish Starro breaks free from his confines and starts menacing the city, Gunn deliberately references Godzilla, just because.

I thought I detected, in the sweatily exotic location where criminals rule the roost and the outlaws are the good guys, a whiff of Casablanca too. Fanciful, maybe, but The Suicide Squad also has Casablanca’s fantastic pace and plot compression. That, really, is what makes it so good.

The Suicide Squad Soundtrack – Buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021