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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Series Review: The Fast and the Furious

It's sort of funny, when you think about it, that a film series which is built on a premise made for mindless testosterone has become a series as defined by its sincerity as by its sublime ridiculousness. It started from a place of, "I live my life a quarter mile at a time," and over a decade and a half, has come to a place of "I don't have friends; I have family," and has managed to do so in a way that feels totally earned and without sacrificing the series' original reason for being. If the markings of a successful film series are consistency, developing a rich history and personal mythology, and managing to continue getting not just bigger, but better, then The Fast and the Furious may very well be the best action franchise ever. This isn't to say that the movies aren't kind of dumb; it's just that they're the kind of dumb that's fun as hell.

It would be somewhat reductive, but not entirely inaccurate, to say that The Fast and the Furious films are about people whose love for cars is exceeded only by their love for driving those cars recklessly fast. In the end, it always comes down to the cars, whether the characters are trying to stop a boat (movie 2), take on a tank (movie 6), or take out a helicopter (movie 7). In terms of the series' overarching narrative, it begins with Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker), brought together when Brian is undercover and trying to determine if Dom and his friends are the crew that have been hijacking trucks to steal the electronics that they're transporting. Despite his mission, Brian finds himself bonding with Dom over a shared love of cars and driving fast, and ends up falling for Dom's sister, Mia (Jordanna Brewster). His loyalties divided, Brian ultimately makes the choice to help Dom by letting him go instead of arresting him, which has the result of forcing Brian to go on the run himself. While Dom gets away, the authorities catch up with Brian, now making his living on the underground racing circuit, and offer him a deal: if he will help bring down a Miami drug lord, his criminal record will be expunged. Brian brings in his childhood friend, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and together they infiltrate the drug lord's operation and get in on a plot to smuggle the drug money onto a plane and out of the US. When their mission is accomplished, their records are cleared (and their pockets are lined with a bit of purloined drug money), and they're allowed to start over again with their lives.

Dom, meanwhile, has ended up in the Dominican Republic, where he's joined by his girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), until the heat comes on and he slips away in an effort to keep her safe. That effort is for naught, however, as Dom later gets word from Mia that Letty, who has returned to Los Angeles, has been murdered. Dom goes back to Los Angeles to investigate, where his path crosses with that of Brian, who has now joined the FBI and is conducting an investigation of his own. Dom and Brian end up working together to take down a drug lord who is connected to Letty's murder, and Brian makes amends with Dom and Mia and tries to negotiate a pardon for Dom in exchange for his assistance. However, when the job is done, Dom is arrested and a judge sentences him to 25 years to life. Brian responds by resigning from the FBI and, with the help of Mia and Leo (Tego Calderon) and Santos (Don Omar), two members of Dom's Dominican crew, breaking Dom out of custody and fleeing with him and Mia to Rio de Janeiro. There things go awry after they participate in a train robbery and they end up on the wrong side of Reyes, a crime lord, and accused of having murdered DEA Agents. While the government sends Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to capture them, and he recruits local officer Elena (Elsa Pataky) to assist him, Dom and Brian learn that the car that Reyes is after contains a chip which contains the details of his empire and the location of $100 million in cash. With that in mind, they form a crew to steal the money which includes Roman, Leo and Santos, Tej (Ludacris), a friend of Brian's from his days on the run, Gisele (Gal Gadot), whom Brian and Dom met during their previous adventure in Los Angeles, and Han (Sung Kang), a friend and former crew member of Dom's. When it becomes clear that most of the local police force is in with Reyes, resulting in the slaughter of Hobbs' team, Hobbs and Elena join Dom and Brian and their crew and when the job is complete, Hobbs gives them a 24 hour head start before he begins chasing them. $100 million dollars richer, the members of the crew go their separate ways in an effort to lay low and take off to start their new lives.

Hobbs eventually catches up with Dom, now living with Elena, but not to arrest him. Instead he wants Dom's help taking down Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), an ex-Special Forces soldier wrecking havoc in London and whose crew includes an amnesiac Letty. Dom agrees and puts the crew back together, minus Leo and Santos, and they head to London, where Dom manages to get close to Letty but (at first) can't get her to come back to his side. Eventually, Letty sees the truth about Shaw and switches sides in the midst of an epic chase scene which includes a tank, however, in the aftermath Dom and Brian learn that Shaw has kidnapped Mia and must give chase on an airport tarmac to stop Shaw from fleeing with her. When all is said and done, the crew loses Gisele, who is killed during the chase, Shaw is taken out of commission after being thrown from the plane, and Dom and Brian and the surviving members of their crew are given amnesty and allowed to return back to the United States. With the exception of Han, they do just that, with Letty, still without her memory, struggling to fit back into her own life. Han, meanwhile, goes to Tokyo and ends up taking Sean (Lucas Black), a teenage street racer, under his wing after Sean gets on the bad side of a classmate with Yakuza connections. While Sean ultimately ends up successful in his fight, he's left to finish it without Han's assistance after Han is murdered by Owen Shaw's brother, Deckard (Jason Statham), who is on a quest to systematically kill everyone from the crew in retaliation for what has happened to his brother. As the war begins, Dom is offered a deal by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), the head of a covert ops team, who pledges to assist with taking down the elder Shaw in exchange for Dom and his team retrieving a hacker named Ramsay (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has been kidnapped by a terrorist group headed by Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). Dom and the team succeed in rescuing her, but the result is that Jakande and Shaw team up against them, which nearly results in the deaths of the entire team and the destruction of most of Los Angeles.

The Fast and the Furious (2001): On its own, the first entry in the series is dumb fun that adheres fairly closely to a well-worn template (the lawman who goes undercover, gets too close to his mark, and ends up "going native," as it were). Fundamentally there's nothing here that you haven't seen before (and, arguably, much of what this film does, 1991's Point Break does slightly better), but the driving sequences are nevertheless exciting to watch unfold. As part of a series, The Fast and the Furious is at something of a disadvantage by virtue of the makers not knowing at that point that it would become a series that would still be going strong over a decade later. While many of the elements at play in this film will go on to inform later films, the series doesn't know what it is yet here and the result is that when the films are watched back to back, this one seems to take a lot longer to find its footing than subsequent entries.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): Of the films, the second entry is the one which stands out as having the least serious tone. While the stakes in the story end up being high for its main characters, and the driving and chase sequences are as exciting as in any of the films, there's something sort of goofy about this particular entry, which is the only film not to feature Vin Diesel in any capacity and is instead carried entirely by Walker. It's a flashier film than the previous one (in line with the rule of sequels, it's bigger, brighter, and louder than the first) and the relationship between Brian and Roman lacks the weight of the one between Brian and Dom, because there's a far lesser level of conflict, so it feels considerably less consequential than the first and some of the following films, but it's a fun movie and the only one of the Fast movies (so far) to feature a chase scene between a car and a boat.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006): When you think about the series as a whole, 2 Fast and Tokyo Drift feel less like proper sequels than spinoffs. With the exception of the final moments, when Diesel makes a cameo, Tokyo Drift follows an entirely unfamiliar set of characters and its story is almost entirely unconnected to the events in the rest of the series (though that may change as the series continues). The good thing about Tokyo Drift is that it introduces Han, who is one of the series best characters, and that it brought director Justin Lin, who would go on to see the series through its next three entries, into the mix. The bad thing about Tokyo Drift is that throws a wrench into the chronology as it's the third film to be released but the events in it occur after those of the sixth film. This means that when Black returns for a cameo in Furious 7, he looks even less like a teenager than he does in Tokyo Drift, even though his scenes with Diesel in both are meant to take place only minutes apart; and that Han's scenes in the next couple of films unfold with you knowing that he's going to die and how (it also means that Gisele has to die in order to direct the story towards Han's inevitable death).

Fast & Furious (2009): Although this is the fourth entry in the series, it's the true sequel to the first film. It brings Brian and Dom back together, addressing the outstanding conflicts between them, and ties up the romantic conflict between Brian and Mia. The events of the first feed directly into this film, whereas the events of 2 Fast aren't a factor beyond Brian being reinstated into law enforcement, and the events of Tokyo Drift are years away from happening within the world of the film. To me, Fast & Furious is really a "table setting" entry, one which hits the reset button to get the players from the first film back into place and provide the jumping off point for the next films, which will take the series in a slightly different direction. Fast & Furious has its moments, and it's obviously a key film in terms of how the series proceeds, but to me it feels more utilitarian than anything. It's a film that has to happen to make the next films possible, but it's not one I feel any particular desire or urgency to revisit.

Fast Five (2011): Fast Five is the pinnacle of the series, the one where it begins really mining the history it has created over the four previous films, and the one which shifts the series to take it in a slightly different direction. While the previous films were about racing, this film and the following ones are heist movies featuring racing. Five turns on the relationship between Brian and Dom and Mia, but it also folds in the all-star characters from its previous films (with the exception of Rodriguez's Letty), and creates a new one in Johnson's agent Hobbs. The climactic scene in which the team steals a giant safe and races with it through the streets of Rio (destroying large parts of the city in the process) is extraordinary, and the film is just generally a lively and fun experience. Meanwhile, pitting Diesel against Johnson is an inspired decision which ends up paying dividends through two more films (and counting). This may be the fifth film in the series, but there's a freshness to it which I think completely explains how it is that from this point on the series has only managed to grow its audience and achieve bigger and bigger box office.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013): The sixth film is close behind Five in terms of enjoyability. As with Five, it features the series' MVPs (though in this case it drops Leo and Santos and brings back Letty) and it makes effective use of the history and mythology that it has managed to build through its many entries (neither Diesel nor Rodriguez are the strongest of actors, but there's a surprising emotional heft to the scenes between Dom and Letty in this film). The respect in which 6 has the slightest edge is that it features the better villain in Evans' seemingly unstoppable Shaw, but it also has to maneuver its story in such a way that it connects the events of Toyko Drift to the rest of the series, which results in the loss of two of its awesome characters (Gisele and Han). The action scenes in this one are ridiculous - the thing with the tank! the 20 minute chase on the airport tarmac! - but they're ridiculous in a wonderful, purely entertaining way. 6 is a thrill ride with a bit of an emotional punch to it and it's one of the series' best films.

Furious 7 (2015): Because of Walker's death during filming, Furious 7 has a mournful, deeply emotional layer to it that the others do not. It ends in a way which makes it impossible to separate the real life death from the events in the film, as it concludes with a sort of eulogy to Walker/Brian which doesn't really make sense within the context of the film itself, as Brian doesn't die, but which nevertheless feels earned because the series has come to define itself, in the most sincere terms, on the relationships between the characters. There's an elephant in the room when you're watching the film, but it still manages to get the job done and do so very well. It ups the ante on the last film by bringing in Statham and making him an even bigger, badder version of the Shaw brother portrayed by Evans in 6, and it manages to find even crazier ways to fold action into the proceedings. Cars don't just race in this film, they fall out of planes, they drive from the top floor of one Abu Dhabi high rise into another and then into another, they dodge drones and rockets, and they go careening through the air and into a helicopter. The film destroys large segments of Los Angeles, features a long and nasty fight between Diesel and Statham, and finally brings a sense of closure to Walker's role in the series which will allow it to carry on in his absence. It's a solid movie that really delivers.

Although it has lost a key piece of itself with the loss of Walker, I have no doubt that the series is going to be able to keep chugging along and growing its audience because it just does so much right. The action sequences get bigger and more intense from film to film, each film from Fast & Furious onward has taken steps to use the history at its disposal and build on it to deepen the relationships between the characters and keep fleshing them out, and it has managed to remain more or less consistent in terms of its overall tone. It is also a series which demonstrates just how easy it actually is to feature a diverse cast on screen, and I don't doubt that that has played some role in helping the franchise to keep growing its audience. It would be easy, sight unseen, to write these movies off as empty, testosterone fueled exercises in going fast and blowing stuff up, but to do so would be doing yourself a disservice. The Fast and Furious movies may be absurd, but collectively they also make up what it is arguably the best action franchise of this decade and the last.

The Films, Ranked

1. Fast Five (2011)
2. Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
3. Furious 7 (2015)
4. The Fast & The Furious (2001)
5. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
6. Fast & Furious (2009)
7. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)


Dell said...

Haven't seen that last one yet, but everything you've written about the franchise is pretty spot on. Simply due to the fact that it managed to not only survive, but flourish for so longlong, it deserves to be mentioned among the greatest action franchises of all time. Before now, it was unfathomable that the 5th, 6th, and 7th installments of a franchise could be the best.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, part of what's so surprising about The Fast & Furious as a franchise is that it achieved its best (both in terms of quality and box office return) right at the point when most franchises are well past their "best before" date.