The Fast Saga didn’t start out with world-conquering ambitions. “The Fast and the Furious,” released in 2001, was a cops-and-robbers drama set in Los Angeles’s underground drag racing scene starring Paul Walker as Officer Brian O’Conner and Vin Diesel as charismatic racer Dominic Toretto.
Twenty years, nine movies and one spin off later, the franchise bears little resemblance to that modest first installment. The cars are still very fast, and the characters still drink Coronas and hold family as their highest value. But Walker died in an unrelated 2013 car crash. The setting has expanded beyond Los Angeles all the way to Earth’s orbit. And the roster of vehicles the characters drive and explode now includes armored vehicles, submarines and drone-controlled planes equipped with giant magnets.
On paper, that expanded mayhem quotient and global itinerary makes the Fast Saga sound like every other $200 million action movie trying to recoup its astronomical budget by being just bland enough to appeal both at home and abroad. Yet despite its globe-trotting plot and overseas debut, “F9” still feels distinctly American in its mash-up of mid-century values and modern multiculturalism.
The movie is framed by flashbacks to the Toretto family’s roots in stock car racing. Characters joke about the perils of “driving while brown” and Brooklyn hipsters’ bad taste in restaurants. Fathers tutor their sons in car maintenance. Momentous family gatherings are best celebrated with beer and backyard barbecues.
This unpretentious shorthand is in keeping with the franchise’s genuine affection for its own characters and interest in how they develop as people. Unlike the many sterile superheroes of the Marvel and DC franchises, the Fast Saga characters have sex, they have kids, they get married and they try to make those marriages successful. These are action movies, sure, but they’re also soap operas cannily calibrated to appeal to both men and women.
“F9” is the only action movie I can think of that makes space for a scene where two working mothers get dinner together and talk about trying to balance the adrenaline they get from their careers and the environment in which they want to raise their children. Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are quasi-mercenaries with a shared penchant for extreme vehicular damage. But even if their specific work-life balance challenges aren’t identical to the scheduling dilemmas of female Fast Saga fans, conversations like this ground the series emotionally even as the movies’ relationships to the laws of physics get even more tenuous.
And yes, the action sequences in “F9” and its most recent predecessors are so over the top that they achieve a kind of playful joy competitors too often eschew. Superhero movies may aim for grandeur by opening portals to other dimensions. But if anything is possible in the movies, wouldn’t it be more fun to jump a car between skyscrapers, use a bunch of magnets to foil your enemies or strap a rocket to a junker and send it to space?
This, most of all, may be the key to the franchise’s success: a single-minded dedication to giving a wide range of audiences a very good time. Oh, sure, there are nefarious hackers, world-endangering plots and even throwaway lines about the Central Intelligence Agency running the Latin American drug trade. But the Fast Saga isn’t embarrassed to be what it is. These movies don’t need to dress themselves up in poorly-developed debates about government power or the legacy of American racism in a bid for intellectual credibility that will always fall short out of timidity. A blockbuster with something to say and the guts to actually say it can be wonderful, but such creatures are as rare as unicorns, given polarization at home and tensions abroad.
Instead, what the Fast Saga wants is to find seats for as many people as possible at the table in Dominic Toretto’s backyard. There are digs at hipsters and scenes poking fun at the characters’ increasingly implausible invincibility designed to appeal to those same connoisseurs. There are big crowds of women in skimpy dresses, as well as gear head romantic heroines and a soupcon of Helen Mirren. Men have big muscles — and even bigger feelings about their dads, brothers, wives and kids. The Coronas are as cold as movie theater air conditioning. And everyone is welcome.