I Watched ‘F9’ So Other Bike/Ped Advocates Don’t Have To
9:26 AM EDT on July 7, 2021
Recently, someone made the hilarious mistake of inviting me, Kea Wilson, a person who literally writes about how America needs to end car crashes for a living, to go see the latest installment in the "Fast and the Furious" franchise.
Now, it's true that I am mildly well-known as a person who enjoys super-violent movies. But usually, my tastes run towards the dudes-in-rubber-masks-wielding-meat-hooks end of the spectrum rather than the muscle-bros-barrel-rolling-out-of-sports-cars side of things. And more to the point, when it comes to traffic violence, I am a huge wet blanket. I spend my days trying to re-sensitize people to images of Hummers crashing into buildings rather than de-sensitize them, which is what "Fast and Furious" movies do.
Suffice it to say, I am not Vin Diesel's target audience.
Still, despite myself, I was pretty excited to watch F9, which I'm told is the actual name of this film and not just the command key you hit to skip tracks on iTunes anymore. Watching trucks explode is fun! I'm sure I can compartmentalize all the horrifying reckless driving statistics that are emblazoned on my brain, at least for a couple hours! They sell beer at the theater!
So off I went, on the single most dangerous day for fatal car crashes on U.S. roads, to celebrate America by watching Diesel punch a Jeep into the Grand Canyon or something.
Here is my synopsis, based on largely indecipherable notes scrawled in the dark while two Pilsners deep. Spoilers and dorky transportation jokes abound.
We open on our hero, Dominic "Dom" Toretto, a glowering teen whose name I instantly forget. The year is 1989, and Toretto is at the race track to watch his dad compete with his Arch Rival for the prize of a lifetime. But Arch Rival is, naturally, super evil, so he intentionally clips dad's bumper at one zillion miles per hour, causing the car to hit a wall and instantly explode with dad inside. Dom is traumatized! But apparently not traumatized enough to quickly pursue a career driving exploding cars for nine consecutive movies.
Cut to present day, and our glowering teen has tacked on approximately two additional teens worth of muscle mass and transmogrified into Vin Diesel. For reasons that are inscrutable to me because I have never seen another Fast and the Furious movie and refuse to look it up, Dom Tortellini has given up life in the fast lane to live on a farm with his partner, Michelle Rodriguez, and his young son, who all exclusively wear denim to signify that they are rugged and very rural.
Suddenly, a giant SUV pulls up the gravel drive! Vin and Michelle freak out, shove their kid in a spider hole in a barn, and grab their giant guns to subdue the threat.
But luckily, it's just their old friends: Ludacris, Tyrese, and a few other people I do not recognize, because unlike the other two, I didn't dance awkwardly to their music at bar mitzvahs in the year 2000.
Vin is placated, but suspicious. "I know you don't carpool," he sneers, because real heroes only ride in single occupancy vehicles, even when they are going to the exact same off-grid farm that seems to grow nothing.
Half of the artists behind Now That's What I Call Music 1999 explain to Vin that some guy they know for some reason, who is literally named Mr. Nobody, has captured a Very Bad Terrorist named Cipher, who apparently killed Diesel's baby's now-dead mother! But then Mr. Nobody's plane was immediately shot down over the rainforest, and Cipher escaped. The team convinces Vin to go to the scene of the plane crash to try to find Mr. Nobody, who is also missing, and try to recapture the Very Bad Terrorist together.
All this plot is very boring and no cars have exploded for a while, so we immediately smash cut to the jungle, where Dom Togglebolt and friends have somehow easily rented, like, 12 top-of-the-line muscle trucks in this fictional Central American country — except for Michelle Rodriguez, who gets a sweet dirt bike. She does not wear a helmet, because then we could not see her excellent haircut. The denizens of Next Door probably care less about this than making sure cyclists in U.S. cities who never break 15 miles per hour are fined for the same thing ... but I digress.
The squad searches the wreckage of the plane and find what looks like a tiny terrarium for some nice succulents maybe, but is actually half of a super-weapon that can be used hack into any electronic device, including deadly space lasers. I check my phone to see if Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote this movie.
Naturally, an army of commandos immediately swoops in to steal the terrarium, and there is a ridiculous jungle car chase! Vin Diesel uses his sweet sports car to shield Michelle Rodriguez and her dirt bike from a hail of bullets, and her hair remains perfect throughout. Someone's tank catches on fire and the driver yells, "My ass is en fuego!" so now I am pretty sure this movie is going to win a Best Screenplay Oscar. Tyrese drives through a literal minefield, which is hard because in order to avoid the blast radius after triggering a mine, he needs to drive over 80 miles per hour...but his speedometer only goes up to 70!
Fun fact: my Toyota has a speedometer that goes up to 130, and this unnamed Central American country apparently has better vehicle safety standards than NHTSA.
After much exploding and crashing and zero airbag deployments, the commandos steal the terrarium and the team debriefs.
Apparently, the leader of the commandos was....Dominic Tetrazzini's younger brother, Turkey Jakob Tetrazzini, played by John Cena! He is somehow even huger than Dom, who is extremely huge! In a flashback, it is revealed that Jakob was also at the racetrack on the day that their dad exploded, and secretly rigged dad's car to explode before the Rival Driver smashed him into that wall! Why? I don't know, teen boys hate their dads, I guess!
Young Dom is Furious (TM), but merciful. He challenges his brother to a drag race on a public road, which is fine, because as everyone knows, there are no people on the streets of Los Angeles after dark who are not there specifically to watch IRL NASCAR. As Dom's prize for winning the race, Jakob is banished from town forever and sets off on his destiny to become a super assassin/super thief/"high performance driver" with a serious grudge.
Meanwhile in the present, Jakob Tomatillo delivers his little geodesic dome thing to his associate, a generic rich blonde evil guy named Otto. On Otto's orders, Jakob apparently captured Cipher, the Very Bad Terrorist/baby-mom-murder, who is now hanging out in a Hannibal Lecter-style bulletproof glass box. She is played by Charlize Theron with the same haircut as Jim Carrey in "Dumb and Dumber," but is somehow gorgeous. I am not 100 percent sure why she is involved in all this, but she tells Jakob to go to Scotland, where the other half of the murder dome is stored, and he does.
The good-guy squad decamps to their Ninja Turtles sewer lair, where they learn via a convenient greenscale video debriefing that the bad guys actually need a key to unite the two halves of the mini-Epcot-of-doom, and that key has "something to do" with their dead friend Han, which they know for...some reason. Apparently, no further explanation is needed, because half of the team immediately flies to Tokyo, where Han was last seen alive, and the other half goes to Scotland to stop Jakob.
But because these people have unlimited Delta Skymiles, first Tyrese and Luda make a pit stop in Germany to visit their fellow Total Request Live alum, Lil Bow Wow, and two other guys about a remote-controlled "rocket car" they're all building, which I guess could be useful to their mission if it is faster and more furious than any other car? Sure!
The car immediately explodes, and Luda and Tyrese snicker about how autonomous vehicles will never be a thing, because driving is the highest expression of human greatness.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, John Cena/Jakob is driving around with a room-sized super-magnet in the back of a box truck because that will help him disarm the security system around the mega-weapon, and also probably kill anyone with a pacemaker within 50 yards.
Ludacris and Tyrese arrive to track him, and, to their horror, are forced to park their sweet car in the middle of a crowded pedestrian plaza and....walk. "I just grew a new bunion!" Luda actually cries, because he literally never uses his feet for anything but pushing a gas pedal.
Luckily for Luda and Tyrese, after about 12 seconds of being pedestrians, they find Jakob's super-magnet truck parked in an alley next to the rare-weapon-storage-facility, and realize his sinister plan. But just as they're climbing into the back of the truck to disarm the magnet, John Cena's commando buddies attack! Their only hope to stop Jakob now is to drive the truck as far away as possible so it can't disarm the security system — and since Luda and Tyrse are busy fighting, now that's up to Ramsey, a member of the good guy squad who has not gotten a lot of screentime, because apparently ... she does not know how to drive.
"But I'm from London!" she cries, as Dominic Toblerone bullies her through a walkie talkie. "You don't even need to drive in London!"
Ramsey climbs behind the wheel anyway and immediately speeds onto the sidewalk, nearly killing dozens of schoolchildren, and I die a little inside.
Meanwhile, Dom pursues Jakob on foot, until Jakob ziplines between two buildings to escape him. (I guess this qualifies as micromobility?? I am very tired.)
Anyway, after a lot of chasing and punching and destroying the livelihoods of many local street vendors with smashing magnet-trucks, all the bad guys are subdued, and Dom captures Jakob and takes him back to sewer jail.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Michelle Rodriguez and another character named Mia who they have flown in so there will be more than two women in this movie find Han, that guy from earlier who they all thought was dead! Apparently, Han faked his own death and has been spending his time guarding the key to the super-weapon...which is not a literal key, but instead, the DNA of a human woman named Elle. Twist!
Elle's parents made the geodesic-dome-weapon-thing, you see, and programmed it to be activated by their...blood? Spit? Unclear!...before being killed in a car bomb explosion, because car explosions are a leading cause of parental death in this cinematic universe populated exclusively by people who are, nonetheless, still very into cars. Now that mom and dad are gone, the bad guys will need Elle's DNA to hack the space lasers. They take her back to the Ninja Turtles bunker to keep her safe.
Back in said bunker, Jakob Toasterstreudel reveals that Papa Toasterstreudel was the one who told him to tamper with his engine, because he was trying to throw the race to pay off a gambling debt! He never dreamed his dad would literally explode! Now Dom has no reason to hate his brother, besides the trying-to-steal-a-super-weapon-that-will-end-all-life-on-the-planet thing.
Anyway, his goons come to rescue him, and despite Dom Tarantula's best spine-snapping and round-house-kicking, Jakob escapes — and he also kidnaps Elle, the human woman/superweapon key, who they literally just brought there so that she would not be kidnapped. These people are astonishingly bad at saving the planet.
Now that Jakob has both parts of the murderball and the lady-key, the team has no way to stop him from harnessing the space laser!
Unless ... they disarm the space laser itself. In space. But not with a space ship! Not masculine enough! They need a rocket car, because this is a movie about driving.
I'm going to pause for a second to acknowledge that this scene is fantastic. As much as I am exhausted by Elon Musk and Space X and the whole idea that the real goal of transportation is to make things like trains and buses and human legs obsolete and get everyone into their own personal electric hover-car, I am not a humorless shrew. I am team space-cars, at least in movies, and despite the lyrics of the song "Move B*tch," I am definitely team Ludacris and Tyrese having their own spin-off buddy comedy where they drive around in a recently rebuilt Pontiac Fiero with a jetpack hot-glued to the top and have interplanetary adventures.
Back on Earth, Dominic Topochico and friends make one last attempt to stop Jakob from hacking the laser on the ground. Subsequent twist! The laser-hacking is happening in a moving truck, because of course it is.
A requisite car chase ensues, but at least they take it to the highway this time, so no school children are mauled in the process. Tanks are flipped. Ladies pop out of sun roofs and shoot machine guns directly into moving traffic. Vin Diesel barrel rolls out of the window of an airborne car which is actively on fire and is 100% fine. At some point, Jakob's bad-guy associate decides he is done with Jakob and tries to kill him, and Jakob survives and decides to become a good guy to take his former boss down...or so I am told by my husband when I come back from getting another beer from the concessions stand, because I am very bored.
Despite their newfound mid-car-chase alliance, Jakob and Dom are too late to stop the weapon from hacking into the space laser, so now it is up to Ludacris and Tyrese, the real MVPs of this movie, to ram their cool space car into the satellite, saving the planet and sacrificing their lives. They do, and the team plays a somber string quartet rendition of "Area Codes" at the funeral.
Just kidding: they survive, somehow! Please do not tell the auto industry about whatever magic fireproof "ceramic polymer coating" they smeared all over this Pontiac. The federal government will probably subsidize its production, require it in federal motor vehicle safety standards, and steal the money from Transportation Alternatives.
Day freshly saved, Dominic Tomagotchi sends his newly-forgiven brother off to his new life. Then he scoops his young son out of the spider hole where he has been hiding for this entire movie and takes him to the race track where the grandfather he never met was literally burned to death. This is supposed to be touching and not an example of terrible parenting.
Then he takes little Billy or whatever his name is to meet the gang, who are having a celebratory barbecue at the Tomagotchi family's new home, conspicuously sponsored by Corona. Just as they are about to toast with their delicious beers, Dom notices an empty seat at the patio table and asks who it is for. Michelle Rodriguez smiles. A mysterious car jets through their residential neighborhood at roughly 100 miles per hour and Tokyo drifts past a Drive Like Your Kids Live Here sign, before screeching to a halt in their driveway. Everyone is thrilled. I am deeply confused. The movie ends.
Look: I know that the "Fast and the Furious" oeuvre is not to blame for the traffic violence epidemic in the United States. Or even Scotland! Or the nation of Georgia! Or Japan! Or any of the other fictional countries where these maniacs crashed their Corvettes into preschools in this movie! Films that celebrate car culture are just one tiny piece of the reason why car crash deaths are so broadly accepted as inevitable in our country, and that piece is far smaller than the influence of policy, infrastructure, and power. And besides: it is objectively fun to watch campy movies about indestructible meatheads jumping over ravines in military-grade Mini Coopers.
But someday, I hope I can watch one of these high-octane, high-bodycount movies with the knowledge that right outside the movie theater door, my government isn't actively subsidizing the kind of carnage that directors like Justin Lin are so good at stylizing into bloodless entertainment. I want to be able to fully escape into Fast and the Furious Episode 58 someday, safe in the knowledge that in real life, car crash deaths are rare and unacceptable and wholly preventable, give or take the odd Dominic Toyotathon who goes totally rogue and drives his BMW off the Golden Gate Bridge to somehow stop an ecoterrorist.
But we don't live in that world. And until we do, I'm probably always going to be a little furious.
Kea Wilson is editor of Streetsblog USA. She has more than a dozen years experience as a writer telling emotional, urgent and actionable stories that motivate average Americans to get involved in making their cities better places. She is also a novelist, cyclist, and affordable housing advocate. She previously worked at Strong Towns, and currently lives in St. Louis, MO. Kea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @streetsblogkea. Please reach out to her with tips and submissions.
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