Filling In The Gaps: The Fast And The Furious

This is the first entry in a new and irregular series of posts about film marathons I’ve undertaken that follow a certain theme (directors, actors, franchises and so on). For the inaugural effort I decided to pick The Fast and the Furious series, as up until a fortnight ago I’d never actually watched any of these movies before, unless you count the 1955 B movie The Fast and the Furious written by Roger Corman (which obviously you shouldn’t). I wanted to find out what I’d been missing, so set off on a journey with perma-serious Dominic Toretto and his fellow high-speed drivers, his seemingly endless supply of expensive, fast cars and his rather annoying habit of extolling the virtues of la familia every ten or fifteen minutes…

Who would have thought that a garish, poorly-written Point Break rip-off set amid Los Angeles’ illegal street racing scene – a screenplay inspired by a Vibe magazine article about New York-based racers of imported Japanese cars – would become one of the world’s most financially reliable movie franchises, with not only eight blockbuster films made to date (and at least three more in development at the time of writing) but also associated theme park rides, tie-in books, video games and mountains of promotional vehicular tat?

Had I watched The Fast And The Furious upon its release in 2001 and asked myself that very question, I doubt I’d have predicted that a ninth film would be in production by 2018, let alone a spin-off featuring characters who didn’t even join the series until 2011 and 2015 respectively (next year’s Hobbs & Shaw will concentrate on the semi-comic interplay that has developed between characters played by Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham). In 2001 I would have probably underestimated the sheer amount of desire that exists among cinemagoers for ultimately vapid films that are filled with fast cars, bodies that conform to a certain widely-held notion of sexiness, simple dialogue and risible plotting, but I should point out here for the uninitiated that the longevity of this series is mostly due to the decision made around the time of the fourth film to bring back certain characters and to gradually phase out the street racing in favour of globetrotting espionage, slicker action and crazy stunts, the kind of multiplex-friendly material that has reliably drawn big crowds for decades. Over the course of a decade and a half, these films have deliberately been moulded in order to appeal to a wider audience, one whose primary interest doesn’t really lie with pricey supercars, though there are still enough lingering shots of brightly-painted, curvy bodywork in each entry to slake the thirst of any hardened petrolhead.

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Vin Diesel and Paul Walker

It’s a series that is partly defined by its moments of transition; what’s interesting to me about The Fast And The Furious isn’t so much the movies themselves – some of which are very, very entertaining – but what has happened in-between releases, i.e. the decisions that have been made prior to and during production. All of them adhere to a certain formula associated with three-act Hollywood action cinema, but a severe re-working and then a gradual honing of the product – and we are very much talking about ‘product’, here – has taken place between films four and eight, with one director in particular (Justin Lin) making his mark on the series as it moved from boy racer wet dream to a more muscular action extravaganza.

Lin made the third film, and is also responsible for the fourth, fifth and sixth; soon, he will return to the fold to make the ninth and tenth iterations. Screenwriter Chris Morgan has probably been just as important, writing seven of the films to date (if you include Hobbs & Shaw). Today, as a result of this consistency, and a desire not to stray too far from the successful model Lin and Morgan established ten years ago, everyone who follows the franchise knows what will be in the next film, much in the same way that those who watch James Bond or Mission: Impossible films know that certain boxes in those movies will be ticked for as long as they are made.

While you’re watching the Fast and the Furious films, it’s impossible to escape the sense that the studio tightly controls the life of this cash cow, and that we’re not necessarily seeing one director’s vision, but that of several directors past and present combined, who have all had to manage the input of power-wielding stars, producers and, no doubt, entire marketing departments. Of course filmmaking is a necessarily collaborative process, but it’s obvious that during the past seventeen years or so owner Universal Pictures has managed to slowly shed everything that doesn’t quite work, or isn’t popular enough, and has kept in everything that tests well with audiences and puts bums on seats. It’s not rocket science, I guess, but woe betide the director who comes in and tries to Last Jedi the fuck out of a future installment – because people expect certain things from this franchise, and thanks to the studio, the public gets what the public wants. (As I watched one film after another during this marathon I started to experience the same feeling I get when I go into a McDonald’s or buy a Coke; familiarity can be comforting at times but it can, eventually, also become boring.)

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Michelle Rodriguez

The notion of a series that has regularly found itself in periods of transition also applies to the actors, and their characters. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the franchise is that no-one has really managed to appear in all of the films. Vin Diesel – who plays Dom Toretto, a man who starts off as a small-time hijacker and street racer leading a crew of fellow criminals before later evolving into some sort of godlike, injury-avoiding, stunt-driving superhero – has had a good stab at it, but I don’t count the archive footage that’s used briefly in second film 2 Fast 2 Furious or the cameo at the end of the third, Tokyo Drift (which happens to be the third in terms of release date, but not the third chronologically); still, Toretto’s total of six appearances shows Diesel’s enduring box office appeal. Paul Walker, who sadly died in a car crash during the making of the seventh film, also made it into six of them; his undercover cop/former undercover cop Brian O’Conner being the only familiar face in 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is the worst of the bunch. Other mainstays include Michelle Rodriguez as driver Letty Ortiz (five films), Jordana Brewster as driver/love interest/Dom’s sister Mia Toretto (six films but pretty much sidelined with a baby for the past couple), Tyrese Gibson as loudmouth wheelman Roman Pearce (five films), Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges as mechanical wizard Tej Parker (five films), Sung Kang as enigmantic driver Han Lue (four films), Johnson as US agent Luke Hobbs (four films) and Gal Gadot as ex-Mossad operative Gisele Yashar (three films). More recently Nathalie Emmanuel, Statham and Luke Evans have had recurring roles, while Charlize Theron’s hacker villain Cipher will surely be back in the future.

Cast members come and go, but teamwork and the importance of family are always emphasised as Toretto and his crew battle some kind of megalomaniac (usually a gangster, drug kingpin or simply a classic headcase who wants to get their hands on a nuke to start World War Three). However, many of the principal characters are in a constant state of flux, usually exhibiting criminal behaviour of some sort but switching sides at a whim, co-operating with law enforcement forces one minute but being hunted by the police and other authorities the next. Throughout they remain anti-heroes, usually morally in the right, beneficiaries of the skewed movie logic that makes characters seem ‘good’ because the person they’re battling is ‘badder’.

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Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker

Walker’s Brian spends a few of the films as an undercover agent, but the lure of the family becomes too strong and his conflict of interest eventually ends; he becomes part of the gang on the run. Toretto – perhaps the most code-driven movie character we’ve ever seen – has to turn his back on the group in one film, becoming a kind of villain of the piece. Statham’s Deckard Shaw is the seemingly indefeatable big bad in one film only to have an abrupt about-turn in the next, his skill-set being of considerable value to Toretto and co as they take on a different enemy. In an arc spreading across three films Letty Ortiz is presumed dead only to reemerge – without any memories of her past– on the side of another enemy. And so on. The films stay the same, yet change is everywhere.

I watched them in order (ie by release date), knowing that I’d probably begin to enjoy them more as the stunts became more outlandish and everything became sillier. Rob Cohen’s original (2/5) is a serviceable action drama, in which O’Conner tries to infiltrate Toretto’s crew as part of an investigation into hijacking operations, and while doing so he earns the respect of Dom and co while falling in love with Mia. It lurches from one plot or dialogue cliche to the next, but it does have its moments, particularly the Mad Max-esque truck chase near the end. However, whenever we and the characters leave the insides of the vehicles the shortcomings are painfully obvious; as I said earlier it’s a fairly tepid Kathryn Bigelow rip-off and I began to worry about how I would feel after watching so many Vin Diesel movies in a row, as here he exhibits all the charisma and acting ability of a baked potato.

If the first one is basically Point Break with cars, 2 Fast 2 Furious (1.5/5) is a thinly-disguised homage to Miami Vice, with Walker and newcomer Gibson doing passable impersonations of Crockett and Tubbs as they zoom around trying to outwit a gang of rote Floridian gangsters. It did at least instantly change my opinion on Diesel; he is sorely missed here, if for no other reason than the second movie needed another strong link to the original (alongside Walker). As acting rappers go, Ludacris is very much a step up on Ja Rule, who is in the first one, but John Singleton’s effort is very weak overall, and even a week or so after watching the movie it’s hard to recall much of the detail.

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Lucas Black and Nathalie Kelley

I’m not sure what happened in the lead-up to The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2.5/5), but it’s the best of the first three (ie the ones that tend to concentrate on street racing). With no returning cast members (aside from Diesel’s brief cameo at the end) this detour could easily have been a disaster, but I think it has a fair bit going for it, not least the excellent race sequences that were put together by Lin and his crew (the ‘drift’ through the Shibuya Crossing that takes place here is probably the highlight of the first three movies). Again the plot is a bit by the numbers and the performances are generally uninteresting and uncharismatic (with the notable exception of Kang, making his debut here), but shifting the action away from the US injected a bit of ooomph.

If Universal has concerns about Walker and Diesel as leading men prior to Tokyo Drift, any such fears will surely have been put to bed with the advent of fourth film Fast & Furious (2.5/5) – by this point Walker in particular had really improved as an action hero. I liked this one – with the usual reservations about acting, plotting and the script – and you could argue that it’s the most important film of the series, as it represents the point that the studio moved away from the street racing and car culture side of things in favour of more robust and outlandish action, plus the most important established characters return. It’s all very macho, and often very silly, but the stunt driving is typically excellent once again, and Lin really does excel at the big set pieces. By this point I’d watched half of the franchise in the space of a day and started to get a headache from the heady mix of fast cutting and engine revving. It was time for a break, but as the fourth one drew to a close I realised I’d finally warmed to Vin Diesel – an actor of limited ability but a likeable, earnest trier – and I was looking forward to the arrival of Dwayne Johnson, who joined the franchise in Fast Five.

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Gal Gadot and Sung Kang

I carried on the following day, slightly weary of car porn and risible acting but still eager to watch what many feel is the high watermark of the series. They definitely upped the ante with the fifth entry (3.5/5), which is set in Rio, bringing back a number of old characters for a ridiculously stoopid but hugely entertaining heist movie. In terms of the big set pieces I’m less of a fan of the one involving a safe being dragged through the streets than I am of the earlier train sequence, which is terrific fun – it’s so over the top that I was chuckling away to myself by the end of it. Once again my opinion of Walker had improved by the end; by this point in time purely in terms of his physicality he was on a par with quite a few of Hollywood’s bigger names, and the rooftop dash across the favela seen here is the equal of similar, more lauded scenes featuring Daniel Craig and Matt Damon in the Bond and Bourne franchises. Johnson is a fun addition, though his Hobbs is evidently less cuddly here than in later instalments (the actor has gradually taken on more likeable roles outside of this franchise, too), but I enjoyed the ultra-macho rivalry Hobbs has with Dom, which culminates in a wall-pounding fist fight. Over the top and frequently hilarious, Fast Five is a total blast and it’s probably the film that really converted me into a fan.

The problem with watching them back-to-back – certainly from the fifth movie onwards, anyway – is that it becomes harder to distinguish one from another; what marks them out is the appearance of a name actor, such as Theron, or a particularly memorable stunt – and Fast & Furious 6 (3/5) has two of the latter, both of which are as silly as they are entertaining: a crew vs tank showdown culminates, hilariously, with Vin Diesel flying through the air like Superman, while the crew vs aeroplane set piece includes bone-crunching fights, the death of a notable character and Diesel flying through the air again, albeit this time in a car as it exits an exploding jumbo jet via the flight deck and nose cone. The rest of the London-set material here pales a little, by comparison, but is still enjoyable in and of itself. There’s terrible dialogue yet again, and there are times when you feel there isn’t enough space or time for all of the characters to actually do or say something important, but obviously these films stand or fall on their car chases, stunts and races, and number six delivers in that regard.

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The cliff-edge stunt

As does Furious 7 (3/5), which is both The Jason Statham One and Paul Walker’s swan song, the actor’s tragic death in a single vehicle accident occurring mid-production. Memorable stunts this time feature a synchronised car parachute drop, a car smashing through the glass upper floors of three separate Abu Dhabi skyscrapers and – my personal favourite – a rather tense escape by Walker’s O’Conner from a precipitous, cliff edge bus just before it falls (filmed using a stuntman and without CGI). Walker’s brothers stepped in to help complete the late actor’s scenes and the movie includes a touching tribute to the actor as its finale, very much a ‘goodbye’ from the cast and crew that could easily have been cringeworthy but is instead genuine, heartfelt.

Walker might have started out as one of the two lynchpins of the series but in the later films he was sharing screen time with a much-expanded cast, and arguably was less integral to the franchise than he was, say, two or three films earlier. I say this not to denigrate the man but instead to explain why it’s no surprise that Universal and it’s employees carried on without him (well, there’s also the small matter of a billion dollars profit per film, but I’m trying to link these paragraphs together here, cut me some slack). There’s the briefest of mentions of his character in the eighth film – he supposedly retired at the end of the seventh – and that’s it. Joining the remaining performers for The Fate Of The Furious (2.5/5, released as Fast & Furious 8 in the UK) are Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren and Scott Eastwood, while Kurt Russell – who first appeared in number seven – reprises his role as Mr Nobody, a government agent with considerable reach. Statham also returns, this time in cahoots with the Toretto crew, though the gang are actually trying to take down their old chum and de facto leader due to some rather dubious plotting. It’s all a bit soap opera, and there’s perhaps a little too much emphasis in this one on the importance of family, but it does at least culminate in a gloriously silly submarine and car chase across an ice field, and Statham, Johnson, Mirren and Russell seem to be having a lot of fun.

‘Fun’ is the operative word with regard to this series. It got much better when it stopped taking itself too seriously and ditched the street racing in favour of silly, high-octane chases featuring astonishing stunt driving. Around the same time, the cast became more stable, with characters played by Gibson and Ludacris in particular adding some comic levity through their interplay, a tone that was later enhanced by the addition of the Alpha Male bromance between Hobbs and Shaw, as well as Russell’s knowing, confidently-delivered quips. Few people, I imagine, would wish for a return to the days of the early films, in which there was more emphasis on the frowns of Letty Rodriguez, Dom Toretto and Brian O’Conner.

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Tyrese Gibson flying high

Those three characters have, however, been integral for most of the eight films to date, providing the nearest thing we have here to character arcs and through storylines. By the latter stages of this marathon I felt some sort of affinity to them, particularly as Walker’s passing cast its shadow over film seven, but then that’s hardly surprising given that I’d spent around 16 hours in their company during the past two days.

At their best, the Fast and the Furious movies offer solid popcorn entertainment, with jaw-dropping set pieces that provoke as much mirth as they do admiration for those working in the stunt industry. But let’s not get carried away… the acting and scripts are often risible and there’s the danger of a formula eventually stifling creativity, which some may argue has already happened. How much you enjoy them probably depends on how attracted you are to big (and stoopid) blockbusters, or to the extent that you are able to embrace the stupidity of the series. What have I learned by watching these films back-to-back? Not a great deal, but I guess the main thing is they’ve just about persuaded me into becoming a fan… or perhaps a member of the family – ah yes, that word again – who shows up for everything but lurks on the fringes, wondering when they can leave.

Ranked, best to worst (only including those released at the time of writing):

Fast Five
Fast & Furious 6
Furious 7
The Fate Of The Furious
Fast & Furious
Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
The Fast and the Furious
2 Fast 2 Furious