“As long as we obey the laws of physics, we’ll be fine.”
So says Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) in one of several self-referential winks in “F9: The Fast Saga.” Fans of the action franchise, about a ragtag team of hijackers turned good guys with amazing driving and bullet-dodging skills, will recognize the reference: The laws of physics are flouted with metronomic regularity in the “Fast & Furious” movies, which audiences now expect to be progressively more outlandish as they try to one-up each other. In “F9,” that desperation involves sending one of the crew’s famously tricked-out cars literally into space - as well as playing fast and loose with on- and off-screen deaths.
In other words, the rules don’t apply in “F9,” which reunites Vin Diesel’s velvet-voiced alpha male Dom Toretto with his loyal crew. After a mysterious message arrives from their leader Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), Tej, Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) convince Dom and his new wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to leave their idyllic country cabin-cum-armamentarium to embark on a mission to ... um, go to a place to pick up a dingus that leads them on yet another mission to foil someone else’s mission to get the dingus back. And then get another dingus that will, as one character puts it, “reboot the world order.”
After the year we’ve just had, that might not sound like the worst thing. But in “F9” the all-powerful geodesic thingamajig is being chased by the evil Cipher (Charlize Theron), as well as a snotty plutocrat with an indeterminate accent (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and Jakob (John Cena), a square-jawed henchman who turns out to be Dom’s no-goodnik of a little brother.
With the help of long-winded expository speeches and myriad flashbacks, “F9” explains Dom and Jakob’s sibling rivalry of Shakespearean (or at least Thor-and-Loki) proportions; family, after all, is the series’ cardinal theme, if you don’t count violence, speed, escapism and eye-popping stunts. And there’s plenty of all of it in this overlong installment, which begins with a chase through a literal minefield and ends with another chase, this time involving enormously powerful magnets that reduce cars, trucks and a trainlike armored vehicle to so many Tonka toys.
Jacked, strapped and preternaturally soulful, Diesel is once again the quietly charismatic center of a group that expands to include some surprising returns and a couple of fun cameos; he may not be a great actor, but he can gaze mournfully at a bottle of Corona as if he’s contemplating Yorick’s skull. Admittedly, “F9′s” script, by Daniel Casey, Justin Lin and Alfredo Botello, does him no favors: More often than not, it sounds like it’s been composed of outtakes from “The A-Team” and “Scooby-Doo.” (Come for dialogue like “This is Cipher, the woman who killed the mother of your child.” Stay for witty repartee about biometrics and tracking chips.)
Cena - who along with Diesel looks like he’s sprung fully formed from a Hanna-Barbera storyboard - is particularly wasted here: He has done some endearing comedic work recently, in films like “Blockers” and “Trainwreck.” But what passes for humor in “F9” are self-referential one-liners about invincibility and overcompensation, often delivered by Gibson’s Roman, that fall as flat as a pancaked police car.
Despite these shortcomings, Lin - returning to the director’s chair after a two-episode hiatus - films “F9” with crispness and clarity, making up in straightforward style and impressive visual effects what the movie lacks in logic or remote believability. As the unofficial beginning of summer moviegoing, “F9” pays homage to the sound, fury and spectacle that the season has come to stand for - with dollops of sentimentality that the franchise doles out as extravagantly as its guns, cars and explosions.
If “F9′s” repetitive stunts-and-speeches structure begins to pall, this is a movie that knows its lane and stays in it, however recklessly. “Who’s compensatin’ now, Tej?” Roman asks sarcastically at one point. The answer’s right on the tip of my tongue.
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Two stars out of four. Rated PG-13. At theaters. Contains sequences of violence and action, and strong language. 145 minutes.