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'We can all cheer together': Why Vin Diesel's driving audiences back to theaters for 'F9'

Brian Truitt

Last March, when the release date of “F9” was delayed almost a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vin Diesel navigated several emotions.

The face (and biceps) of the mega-popular “Fast and Furious” movie franchise knew the decision was out of his control, and understood and agreed with it. But he still felt as if he were letting down fans.

A year later, with most movie theaters reopened and much of America vaccinated, Diesel’s in the driver’s seat, bringing audiences back to the cinema with “F9” (in theaters Friday) while recognizing the responsibility and significance of a film designed for a communal experience.

Before a year of us “all watching movies on our couches – and even more sacrilegious, watching them on our phones – we might not have realized how necessary an audience was for our own appreciation of a film,” Diesel tells USA TODAY. “It's not discussed in film school. Nobody's ever analyzed the compounded euphoria that you feel when you're a part of an audience cheering a moment on screen,  or what it feels like to have someone five seats down sniffle or cry or someone two rows ahead gasp.

Vin Diesel returns as Dom Toretto in "F9," the ninth installment of the popular "Fast and Furious" franchise.

“Even sports are divisible by nature. You go to a game, you're either rooting for one team or the other. ‘Fast’ is that type of ride and that type of experience that most people in the audience have invested 20 years of their lives into that we can all cheer together.”

As Hollywood digs itself out of the pandemic, the summer season is already bringing box-office wins, with “A Quiet Place Part II” the first to haul in $100 million since coronavirus stalled the movie industry. But the action-packed “Fast and Furious” movies are a different big-screen monster, racking up nearly $6 billion worldwide since the first film 20 years ago. Since its release overseas last month, the movie  – with former street racer Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his team having to once again save the world – has already tallied more than $270 million. 

“I think the timing worked out perfectly for this film to come out now and just celebrate going back to the theaters,” says Sung Kang, whose character Han was presumed  dead but returns in “F9.” “I call it two and a half hours of ‘Fast and Furious’ buffet. It's a perfect film, man.”

For Justin Lin, who’s directed five “Fast” films including “F9” (and is on tap to helm the two-part 10th movie), “it brings me back to when I was a kid in the ‘80s going to the movies, and we're very conscious of that. It has that special weight. We might be that one movie where people want to go back to the theaters and watch it, (which is) also very meaningful to me personally.”

Weathering the pandemic as a movie fan in lockdown wasn’t always easy for the “F9” crew.

“I’ll be honest with you, I had problems watching feature films (at home) that were designed for the big screen. Even though I had a huge screen at my house, it just was not the same, and I couldn't engage,” Lin says. “Sometimes when I'm having a long day, I could just duck out on a Wednesday and go watch a movie or something. And that was what I missed.”

Han (Sung Kang, left, with Tyrese Gibson) returns to the "Fast and Furious" fold in "F9."

Instead, Lin and his family turned to bingeing TV shows, including all four seasons of NBC's “The Good Place” – twice, while Kang also watched plenty of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ and spent time in his garage working on his “project cars.” “When things are taken away from you, you end up just appreciating all the things you took for granted,” Kang says.

Diesel says it was “hard” getting through the pandemic without movie theaters because that’s the place where “we all have memories. We associate movies with our loved ones. There's that movie your mother took you to, your dad took you to, your best friend took you to, your first date. These are all significant moments in our lives that we don't realize are associated with a certain theatrical experience.”

The actor’s such a proud champion that “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch poking fun at his cinema love this past season. And he still considers going to the movies an “endangered” experience.

“I had no idea that ‘Fast 9’ would serve as that protector, as that thing to say, 'Hold on, before we trade in all our movie theaters for home theaters or better iPhones, let's remember that thing that we got all through our lives,’ ” Diesel says. “Fast and Furious" has "always been the movie that regardless of what country you're watching it from, regardless of your racial background or your gender, you look at that screen and you know that there's a seat for you at that Toretto barbecue. And that's powerful.”