Death Proof June 29, 2021
On F9 and Siberia
here isn’t a movie in the Fast & Furious
franchise that isn’t delightfully bananas. F9 — its much-delayed new chapter — marks a change of pace. It too is
bananas, but it isn’t of a delightful strand. It goes so overboard in its craziness that ambivalence eventually eclipses trademark delight. Its balder-than-ever attempts to outdo itself and its predecessors trend tedious. These movies, part of our lives for more than 20 years, have always commanded you to forget what you know about physics and probability in general; they’ve never been hard to obey. (I remember watching Furious 6 in theaters specifically because so many of the requisite car chases and detours into hand-to-hand combat left me breathless — like I was watching an action film for the first time.) F9’s action sequences are in contrast too absurd — you rarely get immersed in them. They don’t typically quicken your pulse: you instead sit in disbelief or a pile of laughter or a little bit of
both. In one of its subplots, a couple of characters break off from the main action to go to space in a rocket-addled Fiero to intercept a satellite about to cause international damage. And in another moment, a car’s grills magically affix themselves to a broken bridge and uses that bridge to swing across a canyon like a chromium chimp. One chase takes place on an expanse of South American greenery flecked with landmines, which miraculously leaves most of the heavily-armed bad guys involved dead but keeps unscathed the heroic principal characters participating. There’s also some funny business with a giant magnet I won’t get into.
The writers of F9, Daniel Casey and Justin Lin (who also directed — this is his fourth Fast movie), want us to know that they’re plenty aware we’re probably going to notice how much more brazen F9 is in its nonsense than its forebears. So they often have their characters — usually Tyrese Gibson, effervescently funny as expert driver Roman Pierce — comment, sometimes at length, about how the situations in which the characters get themselves are almost unthinkably improbable, and that it’s not only nuts that they continue living but that nobody has any real scars to evidence their experiences. Roman wonders early in the movie if he and his makeshift family might be — and he pauses dramatically before making the suggestion — immortal. “Maybe you’re invincible — or maybe you’re just a dumbass,” franchise staple Tej (Ludacris) responds with a big laugh. (Don’t let him get to you, Roman — I don’t think it’s dumb to question these things at all!)
What the Fast & Furious movies have always done exceptionally — or, really, since 2011’s Fast Five, which redefined the stakes and scope of the once far-more-earthbound series — is be absurd (and aware of it) while nonetheless delivering aspirationally daring action sequences well-choreographed enough to make you not care much about whether what was happening could actually happen. You were just excited to be seeing what you saw at all. F9 remains well-choreographed, but each of its action sequences is so over-seasoned with devices and developments that so reinforce Roman’s ideas of spooky immortality that your hair doesn’t raise in anxiety. You’re readier to roll your eyes at these unusually strained efforts to impress. (Especially with movies 5 through 7, everything felt comparatively effortless, even though behind-the-scenes work was indubitably effortful.)
F9 is most refreshing not when it’s gone somewhere grander on an action front but when something we have taken for granted is suddenly endangered — namely in one sequence when someone on the team, who normally sticks with technology work and unexpectedly does not have her license (Nathalie Emmanuel), is sloppily tasked with driving a key vehicle. It’s nice, for once, to be uncertain of a driver’s expertise in a car-chase context. And though Gibson and Ludacris going to space is decidedly gimmicky, the movie wisely mines it more for humor than additional action-movie credo. Our laughs are genuine because these always-game actors play the intergalactic trip with as much bemusement as we’re feeling. “This is ridiculous — I’m about to abort this mission,” Roman sighs. There are two more movies in the works. Whereas I once had thought these films could go on forever (imagine the core team of characters, all wrinkly-faced and white-haired, embarking on one last mission before checking into the same senior living community), F9 inspires uncertainty. If you can feel the search for ideas so clearly in this one, how much will this conspicuous problem be successively exacerbated?
Though it is sort of touching knowing how far these movies have come since debuting in 2001. (Nine films later, they’ve made it to space!) Not just in scale — back in the 2000s, the Fast & Furious films were low-stakes adventures usually about local, illegal street-racing, then transformed, in the 2010s, into globe-trotting, immensely budgeted heist movies with sizable and ethnically diverse casts that more or less held steady — but how they’ve grown alongside their characters. We’ve endured marriages, kids, total existential restarts. (Also, you can count on a character never really dying: there’s one guy starring in F9 who, by my count, had ostensibly been killed in the series twice.) This is the rare action franchise in which, although the characters do seem invincible, they strike us as a little more human (if not physically, emotionally) — you can see signs of what they've endured on their increasingly weathering faces. Aside from lead Vin Diesel, who moves and speaks with a stoic earnestness you sometimes wish would loosen up, you also come to like purely spending time with most of its characters. Part of the fun of these movies is checking in with them, finding out where they’re going to go next.
Of all the Fast & Furious movies, F9 might be the most history-obsessed. (One throwback scene even recreates the streetrace aesthetic of the early movies.) In addition to bringing back several characters from the saga’s history — even people from the much-maligned Tokyo Drift (2005) — it also dwells quite a bit in lead character Dom Toretto’s (Diesel) past. (We get an excuse to because the film’s main villain is his estranged brother Jakob, played by John Cena, who has become something of an evil secret-agent type during his years distanced from his clan.) The film opens in 1989, specifically on the afternoon Dom, Jakob, and Mia’s (Jordana Brewster) race car-driver dad (J.D. Pardo) died in a fiery accident during a championship. Flashbacks to that period continue throughout the movie to establish both Dom’s long-standing fixation on finding a chosen family and why things went so sour between him and his turned-rotten sibling. It struck me as funny that it’s taken nine movies for this franchise to consider exploring its protagonist’s upbringing with more-than-cursory detail;
then again, the narratives of these films, and how they connect to the movies which come before them, have always had an improvisational quality, like a long-running soap-opera series littered with evil twins, identity-obfuscating plastic surgeries, and more. “Why not?”: the question long-guiding the Fast & Furious movies.
Dom’s history is predictably just one narrative thread in a movie crammed with many; you can’t stop thinking about how there are too many subplots and too many characters as you’re watching. (Though I quite enjoyed F9's gratuitous Cardi B cameo, mostly for its brand-affirming “why not”-ery.) Villain motivations have historically never exactly been that clear in this series, and they still aren't in F9; who knows, for example, what the antagonist of 2017’s The Fate of the Furious, misguidedly dreadlocked cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), ultimately wanted? For unpersuasive reasons, Theron is also in F9, locked up in a little glass box with no bathroom — it’s her mini-prison for her F8-era crimes — taunting people without thinking about how her haircut, which can only be described as decorative-bowl chic, would make me immediately laugh.
F9 has a particular aversion to clarity in general. You could ask me at any point while watching it if I knew what was going on and I would tell you that I didn’t. When you don’t have much of an idea of goals on a scene-to-scene basis in an action movie, stakes, beyond being aware that overarchingly the film's world is being imperiled by ruthlessly power-hungry people who want a Deadly Device™, aren’t felt as deeply in your bones. That can rob the action of some of its intensity. You can expect, though, that in F9 the day will again be saved, none of the chief characters will die (though there are inevitably some scares), and all will end in a picturesque summer barbecue where the cameras ogle clinked Coronas and amiable hip-hop wafts behind relieved smiles.
Where is this series going to go next? These movies’ commitment to getting bigger and better — the classic action-blockbuster sequel logic always abided by — was once a saving grace (the revival in quality beginning in Fast Five has in itself become one of the touchstone series talking points). But the two-and-a-half-hour F9 shows a franchise starting to unappealingly bulge out, feel overstuffed. I almost yearn now for the series’ novel early years, where the environments felt more immediate and where action sequences felt close to the ground even as they flirted with fantasy. The saga has taken us to the moon; the unexpected move, I think, would be sticking closer to home next time. But how do you go back to where you started after traveling so far and accruing so much along the way? Some things are too big to fail; the Fast & Furious movies have gotten so big that they’re starting to fail.
Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez in F9.
bel Ferrara, a filmmaker who rose to prominence in the late 1970s and ‘80s for his infectiously grimy street thrillers, has never had much trouble tantalizing his audience. His surreal new film, Siberia, tantalizes not
through common-denominator provocation (i.e., the front-and-center sex and violence inextricable from the movies with which he’s most associated) but a fascinating willingness to fiddle with convention in general. I don’t think it’s successful (it didn’t make me feel anything, and its dramatic aim is so hyper-visible that it doesn’t even really work as a senses-first experience). But Ferrara’s readiness to challenge expectation and himself is refreshing particularly for a filmmaker approaching 70 — an age where many directors historically aren’t so willing to wade through uncharted territory.
Ferrara’s longtime muse, Willem Dafoe, stars in Siberia as Clint, an American who owns a bar in the title setting. He will, in the course of the film, voyage through both the bitterly cold wilderness of his new home and the annals of his memories. (The gist, unsurprisingly, is that Clint is running away from something.) Lines between the present and Clint’s memories are fuzzed out; Ferrara has said in interviews that the movie came about in part because of a personal interest in seeing if it was possible to film a dream. (One can’t say Siberia doesn’t succeed in establishing a dream-like world.) As it swings from enigmatic interactions with bar patrons to flashbacks of marital spats to snowy streaks through Siberia guided by a fleet of huskies, the movie’s all-over-the-place “storytelling” doesn’t so much form a cohesive narrative as resemble the inside of its hero’s brain, where reality is constantly interrupted by old regret and anxieties over the dark promises of the future. Everything is mostly held together by Dafoe’s resolute performance, which, with its singular-feeling pain, brings some stability to a movie that otherwise feels like a messy manifestation of psychological kinetic energy too esoteric to empathize with.