Fast and Furious 9 is a satisfying return to roots as Vin Diesel and John Cena face off playing estranged brothers
When the first, relatively modest Fast and the Furious film rode into cinemas in 2001, the World Trade Center was still standing, Billie Eilish was in utero, and Vin Diesel's on-screen gang of street racers was wanted by the cops for stealing a truckload of . . . video cassette recorders.
Twenty years, four presidencies, and five Kardashian Nobel Prize wins later (note to self: check that), this ninth instalment of the increasingly overstuffed – and outlandish – franchise begins with what feels like a return to its roots.
At a California stock car track in 1989, a young Dominic Toretto (Vinnie Bennett) and his brother Jakob (Finn Cole) are manning the pit crew for their race-driver dad, when a fiery crash claims the old man's life and drives a bitter wedge between his sons.
It is, of course, a set-up to introduce the series' latest adversary: the now-adult Jakob (a menacing John Cena), a master assassin who's spent his life living in the shadow of his older brother, Dom (Vin Diesel) – and who now wants revenge.
"You got a brother who also happens to be a super spy?" an incredulous Roman (Tyrese Gibson) asks Dom, helpfully processing the series' latest soap opera twist for the audience.
It seems the mysterious Jakob has captured missing super-villain Cipher – Charlize Theron, savouring her screen time in a bowl cut and red leather pants – and has concocted a plan to get his meathooks on Project Aries, a device that resembles a chintzy 70s fruit bowl but offers deadly access to all the satellites and weapons of the world.
It's a wonder he didn't just kidnap Jeff Bezos.
Events conspire to shake Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) from their latest improbable attempt at a quiet country life, with the returning team – Roman, Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) – scooping them up for a mission to Central America to retrieve the device.
An early set piece, with muscle cars zooming across precarious rope bridges and rendezvousing mid-air with sleek fighter jets, is indicative of the series' ever-mounting need to up the stunt ante – and after a grim year-and-a-half of home-bound viewing, it's a joy to see this brand of preposterous mayhem back on the big screen.
F9, as it's billed, arrives four years after its predecessor The Fate of the Furious, and follows the ill-conceived Hobbs and Shaw, a spin-off that showed just how dreary the formula could be minus the series' easygoing vibes.
The absence this time around of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham – whose wisecracking presence gave the films a mid-series boost, but had started to wear out its welcome – is a plus, their indestructible he-men traded for a refreshing refocus on Diesel's indelible Zen bro-icism.
No one delivers a line like "I'll always be in your heart" better than the rough-hewn but soulful star, his gravelly baritone transforming cheesy bromides into cosmic poetry.
The flashbacks to young Dom and Jakob's street racing duels in East LA – set to vintage West Coast bangers – also give the film an emotional anchor, and rekindle some of the series' old school flavour.
Returning director Justin Lin, who made some of the series' best films in Fast Five and Tokyo Drift, is a sure hand behind the wheel, steering the action across multiple continents and delivering on all the elements that have made this franchise so strangely endearing.
Stilted exposition, terrible jokes and dumb-but-convoluted plot threads abound; there are enough character reveals (Jordana Brewster's Mia and Sung Kang's Han both return) to fill a telenovela; and Cardi B fulfils the requisite random celebrity cameo (let's just say that the rapper's day job is under no threat at present).
Meanwhile, old hands Helen Mirren (as London gangster Queenie Shaw) and Kurt Russell (reprising spy boss Mr Nobody) drop by, and series newcomer Thue Ersted Rasmussen (as spoiled, bratty scion Otto) does a creepy line in pasty Eurovillainy that contrasts neatly with our heroes' multi-racial alliance.
And lest you think the series has backed away from spectacle and toward realism, there's a fantastic, delightfully destructive car chase involving magnets, while anyone who's ever made a "Fast and Furious in Space" gag will find their prayers duly answered.
When the latter moment does arrive – it involves a jerry-rigged rocket strapped to the roof of the notorious Pontiac Fiero – its charm overrides its implausibility, retaining that spark of DIY ingenuity that has practically made this series the peoples' franchise.
The films' core values might be the key to their longevity: in an era where every other IP gets endlessly rebooted and reimagined every five minutes, Fast and Furious' commitment to sticking with its original players is a testament to its enduring theme of family.
"Cars like these are immortal," the senior Toretto tells his kids in flashback, as they admire the black 70s Charger that Dom will go on to cherish.
You could say the same for Diesel, who all-but resembles 2001's Star Child in an underwater reverie here – one of the film's ineffable syntheses of high camp and heartstring-tugging.
He's a vision of humanity's scrappy potential, an everyman mood-board in an age of superhero smackdowns.
And in a world where space travel is the domain of the super-rich, the image of Ludacris and Tyrese – "two dudes from the ghetto" – soaring through orbit in a beaten-up 80s car is just the kind of pop poetry that blockbuster cinema needs.
Fast and Furious 9 is in cinemas from June 17.