By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
‘F9: The Fast Saga’
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Justin Lin and written by Lin and Daniel Casey. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, and language). Running time: 143 minutes. Opening Thursday in theaters.
Just because a movie franchise acknowledges it has become a wildly over-the-top cartoon doesn’t mean it’s a wildly over-the-top cartoon worth your money and 143 minutes (!) of your time. “F9: The Fast Saga” isn’t the worst entry in the long-running and popular “Fast & Furious” franchise, but it just might be the silliest and the loudest and the most ridiculous — and while that might well have been the filmmakers’ intention, it’s not a compliment.
A long time ago in a movie galaxy far in the distant past — the year 2001, to be exact — Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker starred in “The Fast and the Furious,” a slick and entertainingly cheesy and relatively gritty film about an LAPD officer named Brian O’Conner (Walker) who goes undercover and befriends a legendary street racer named Dominic Toretto (Diesel), in an effort to apprehend a ring of hijackers who were stealing truckloads of … wait for it … DVD players and portable TVs with VHS players and digital cameras.
Flash forward some 20 years and in “F9,” not only are the main players traveling in international espionage circles as if they’re in a “Mission: Impossible” movie and routinely engaging in death-defying stunts that would leave Spider-Man battered and bruised, we actually get a sequence involving a makeshift rocket ship fashioned out of a Pontiac Fiero flying through space in a last-ditch effort to save the world, and all of a sudden the rumors about a “Fast & Furious”/”Jurassic Park” crossover film don’t seem so ridiculous. Why not? Anything approaching real-world action has been left in the dust many moons and many movies ago.
With Justin Lin behind the camera for the fifth time (and the first since “Fast and Furious 6” in 2013), “F9” opens with a flashback sequence set in 1989, when a teenage Dominic Toretto (Vinnie Bennett) and his kid brother Jakob (Finn Cole) are working the pit crew when their father is killed in a fiery crash. That tragic event and Dom’s subsequent two-year prison sentence for beating the driver that killed their father were referenced in the first film — but we didn’t know about the brother until now.
Flash forward to the present, and little brother Jakob is now … John Cena! And not only that, but Jakob is still seething with resentment because Dom was daddy’s favorite, and he channeled all that get-thee-to-a-therapist angst into becoming a muscled-up international villain who is working with the standard-issue Eurotrash villain Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) to obtain an object called the Tesseract, I mean Project Aries, which will allow them to control all the world’s computers and all the defense systems of every nation and blah blah blah, how many times have we seen THAT tired MacGuffin of a plot device?
Dom and his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and Dom’s young son are living the quiet life on a farm when their old running mates Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) come roaring up with news: They’ve received a cryptic message from Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) before his plane was shot down, and it appears as if the evil genius Cipher (Charlize Theron) is back in the picture, having been kidnapped by Otto, and it gets way more complicated than that.
The main deal is, Dom and Letty and eventually Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) join the squad on a series of breakneck adventures that take them from London to Edinburgh to Central America to Tbilisi to a whole lot of green-screen CGI as well. They outrun exploding mines, they traverse one of those wobbly movie bridges with Dom performing a slingshot move straight out of a Warner Bros. cartoon, they use giant electromagnets that are strong enough to pull trucks across lanes of traffic (but somehow don’t mess up their own vehicles), and they get involved in all sorts of hand-to-hand combat action. At one point Dom wraps heavy chains around himself and pretty much collapses a building — a feat that would have the Hulk applauding.
Oscar winners Charlize Theron (as the aforementioned Cipher) and Helen Mirren (reprising her role as Queenie Shaw) have fun in very limited screen time; one imagines each spent about two days filming their respective parts. Another character from the past returns from the dead, and there’s a cheap celebrity cameo that only serves to further take us out of the movie. When the ever-bickering comedy duo of Roman and Tej don cheap astronaut get-ups and pilot that Fiero into space, “F9” is going strictly for the laughs and telling us: Yeah, we know this is insane too, let’s just have fun with it.
Like much of the film, it’s mildly entertaining, but then we get more of the tacked-on domestic drama, and the obligatory backyard barbecue where Dom reminds everyone there’s nothing more important than family. Just once at one of those get-togethers, I wish someone would raise a product-placement beer to the dozens of cops and other individuals who were collateral damage when Dom and his pals embarked on all those deadly high-speed chases. One presumes they had families too.
‘Who are you, Charlie Brown?’
A special available Friday on Apple TV+.
You’d have to be a real blockhead to resist just about anything related to Charlie Brown and the whole “Peanuts” gang, and the new Apple TV+ special “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” is a suitably warm and breezy love letter. Part existential exercise and part traditional documentary, the 54-minute special combines new animated scenes with a brief but solid history of Charles M. Schulz and interviews with generations of fans, from Al Roker to Drew Barrymore to Kevin Smith to teenage actors such as Miya Cech and Keith L. Williams.
With Lupita Nyong’o providing sparkling narration weaving the scenes together, “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” begins with Charlie Brown agonizing over a school assignment: He has one week to write a 500-word essay defining himself. (The animated scenes are in the style of the 1960s TV specials, and voice actors such as Tyler Nathan as Charlie Brown and Isabella Leo as Lucy sound very much like the original “Peanuts” gang.) “I have no idea who I am!” laments Charlie Brown. “How am I going to come up with 500 words? Good grief, I couldn’t be stuck with a worse subject: me.”
“You worry too much, Charlie Brown,” says Linus, ever the voice of reason and calm.
We toggle back and forth between the animated scenes of Charlie Brown trying to figure out who he is, with the help of Linus and Sally and Lucy et al. (well, Lucy does her Lucy thing and reminds Charlie Brown of his history of failures), and a straightforward timeline of the life and times of Charles M. Schulz, who was a shy kid and drew upon his childhood experiences to create the “Peanuts” comic strip.
There’s archival footage of interviews with Schulz, scenes of him at work, and clips from some of the great TV specials that further catapulted “Peanuts” into a global phenomenon. Schulz’s widow, Jean, shares memories of her husband, who by all accounts was just as nice and caring as you’d hope he would be, and cartoonists Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”) and Dan Perkins (“This Modern World”) as well as Ira Glass join the parade of superfans expressing their admiration for the stories of Charlie Brown and his endearing group of pals (including, of course, Snoopy).
Although the “Peanuts” children never aged and we never saw the adult figures in their lives, the strip evolved with the times. In 1968, a schoolteacher wrote to Schulz and urged him to create a Black character. Shortly thereafter Schulz introduced Franklin, the first Black child in the group. Al Roker talks about seeing someone who “looks like me” in the comics, and says, “It was amazing how much Franklin meant to me.” An editor in the South reportedly voiced objection to a strip showing Franklin in school with the white characters; Schulz didn’t dignify the letter with a response.
And inspired by his friendship with Billie Jean King, Schulz created Peppermint Patty, a free-spirited jock, and her sidekick Marcie. (It’s pretty cool that some 50 years ago, “Peanuts” always had the girls out there on the baseball field with the boys.)
With that running time of less than an hour, “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” only skims the surface of the social and political impact the “Peanuts” gang had on the culture, and Charlie Brown’s animated quest to define himself is tied up pretty quickly as well. Still, this is a lovely tribute that will appeal to longtime fans and those who are just discovering the amazing “Peanuts” universe.