Retrospective: Fast & Furious

The Fast & the Furious

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The Fast and the Furious is an early-‘00s marketing team’s wet dream. Straight from the pages of a street racing magazine, the initial installment captured the zeitgeist of a particular sub-culture, being in the right place at the right time. It comes by way of moneyed producer turned director Rob Cohen. Its successes are part marketing triumph and part significant screen chemistry of a too cool crew breaking into the street racing scene.

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The Fast and the Furious

It’s easy to forget the franchise’s heist DNA. It was a significantly more modest take to begin with, stories about lifting what are now vintage electronics and looking good doing it. It was about living your life a quarter mile at a time and enjoying being along for the ride. It had a fun fixation on Nitrous systems and street racing jargon, really a celebration of a culture that’ll take a medium entry street vehicle and make it race ready. It made us believe in our cars and told us, this is what they are capable of.

In the first street racing segment, the car throttles into extra-dimensionality, bending time and space like a sci-fi space warp while Brian (Paul Walker) accelerates madly. The street racing has a wild and beautiful heart that contributes a great momentum to these scenes. It has adrenaline rushes aplenty and is souped up for maximum speed.

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The Fast and the Furious

The Fast and the Furious was Walker’s first true lead role, starring as an undercover FBI agent at its center. He breaks into the racing circuit and its seedy underbelly that packs a neat crime story underneath the hood. Family and loyalty are the resounding themes, as Walker navigates where his virtue lies between being an honest man doing the right thing and getting in with Dominic Torreto’s (Vin Diesel) inner circle, as they are both investigating the same murder. We could only be so lucky that they merge with an instant chemistry that extends from the good cop/bad cop themes from decades prior.

The truth is it’s a lowbrow affair. I think we can come back to it now with a clear head, understanding the ridiculous nu-metal as a regrettable by-product of its time and its street-racing culture as something better idealized than practiced. Yes, The Fast and the Furious remains a fun, good time. Did you love Point Break? Then you’ll find its bang-on action blueprint all over this picture. The romances are flimsy and the pacing spotty and yet it’s a satisfying time capsule. It’s still chock-full of remnants of absurdist ‘90s culture, a cartoon of whom we used to be and what we used to like.

2 Fast 2 Furious

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22 Fast 2 Furious operates inside the original film’s basest instincts. It’s ratcheted up the neon; every car is now fitted with neon underglow lighting. This is more of a fetishization of street racing than what we had before. We should allow its placement, a beacon of rap culture intersecting with popular hobby motorists, the Ludacris banger “Act a Fool” is instructive of what the film is about to do. Let’s place it: here we are a year proceeding the Xhibit reality show Pimp My Ride. It was the beginning of a pop culture moment for automobile customization, where the franchise became a parody of the thing it once set out to celebrate.

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2 Fast 2 Furious

2 Fast does make an early play at expanding the crew, bringing in Paul Walker’s childhood friend played by Tyrese Gibson who’s a destruction derby racer and proves a valuable asset in the field. While we’re missing Vin Diesel (who was busy shooting the first xXx—which is like F&F’s spiritual brother), Gibson does a fine job at buddying up and playing the role.

The film sees a switch of setting from the streets of Los Angeles to the sprawling motorways of Miami. This provides ample opportunity for greater chase sequences, mixing in large cop squads and helicopters and boating segments. The thing is that Brian has just left the FBI and has been folded back after being arrested in a street race and challenged with taking down a powerful Argentinian drug lord. In one of the series’ out-of-place grittier moments, the drug kingpin tortures a man by forcing a rat to eat away at him. He’s a pretty deranged dude and a fun one-off villain, an excuse to make some muscle cars purr into action and give us a couple hours of steady adrenaline.

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2 Fast 2 Furious

What’s painfully obvious is that the crew’s having so much more fun than the audience. Yeah, it’s all right watching them speed in these sports cars at blistering a pace, but it’s more of a feverish music video for automobile customization than it is a legitimate movie. John Singleton does a serviceable job of giving the film a unique day-glow spirit that befits its new Floridian setting. We know he understands street culture and has a much greater capacity than what’s showcased here, but given the loss of Diesel’s role, he does well enough to fill in the gap with a kind of road movie styling.

Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift

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The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is my idea of a good time. Taking the formula from the streets of Los Angeles and Miami and relocating to the vibrant and colorful world of Tokyo’s underground racing circuit breathed new life and energy into a series that was already stagnating on its second turn. This time, the shift in location also plays into meaty new themes for the racing, emphasizing drifting and finesse over down and out power and speed. This jaunty and spirited sequel stars Fake Paul Walker (Lucas Black) who’s gotten into some trouble racing in America and is forced to choose between jail and living with his militant father in Japan. Lucky us, he chooses the latter option, and a taut outsider story unfolds as a result.

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Tokyo Drift

Director Justin Lin has given Tokyo Drift an immense feeling of craft. The racing sequences are significantly well shot, thrilling with their adrenaline and style, focusing not only on the raw power of the cars but immersing us in clever track designs with well-utilized shortcuts. See the opening race where Fake Paul Walker races about a residential community that’s well under construction. It takes on a pure videogame form, as he weaves about objects, careens through this fabricated reality of made-to-order homes and takes a keen shortcut, bursting through the foundation of a house and off a hillside to launch out ahead of his competition.

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Fake Paul Walker

Once in Japan, the racing heats up even more, as it introduces new techniques. Fake Paul Walker has only known how to go fast, living his life a quarter-mile at a time, but now it’s about finessing every corner, cutting through Japan’s tightly constricted parking structures, and roaring around winding hills of gigantic mountain ranges.

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Tokyo Drift

This is a film that understands our love of the franchise beautifully. It’s not, we come to realize, all about who has the best car, but who has the best control and sense for style. When faced with run-ins with the Yakuza, it feels relatively high-stakes, adapting into a weird coming of age story where Fake Paul Walker adjusts not only to living in a new city but a brand new culture of motorsport.

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Dat drift doe

Tokyo Drift leaves me with a single major criticism, and it is about the women in the film. In last year’s news, we saw how Michelle Rodriguez threatened to leave the series due to the limited role of women in the films. They are treated simply as the prize for competing well, decorations that are the same as the cars. There’s not very much too their parts—they’re there for the taking and ogling; essentially the men are racing for the pink slips to each other’s women. When Fake Paul Walker first enters the racing scene and is breathing in all the tantalizing new women, his new friend throws him a box of tissues, “that’s for when you blow your wad.” Come the fuck on. Its puerile attitude and jokes about how promiscuous its women are brings Tokyo Drift down slightly from its lofty transcendence over the first two movies.

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You spin me right round

Yes, this is the Fast and the Furious that is squarely about racing. It has the heart of a champion sprinter and a hard-earned cult appreciation within the franchise. That it’s held the test of time, while the films before it are filled with non-stop cultural anchors that weigh them down, is a testament to Lin’s talent behind the camera. If you’ve skipped this one due to its displacement within the series—canonically it only really establishes one character that’s brought forward—then you owe Tokyo Drift a spin on its own merits because it’s absolutely brimming with them.

Fast & Furious

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2009’s Fast & Furious reboot has the best opener of the series. It begins with a high-thrill action sequence, where Director Justin Lin flexes his action muscles. The crew have graduated from thieving TVs with built-in DVD players and are now stealing oil from a semi-truck. As American muscle cars pour over the desert roads of the Dominican Republic, treacherous roadways make this a heist to remember. There’s a good amount of jumping from cars and significantly, Michelle Rodriguez performs some of the only female-centered action in the series thus far.

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Fast & Furious

After the warm open, Fast & Furious dissipates. It breaks down into what is, while important to the movies that follow it, wholly uninteresting taken on its own merits. It has a few good scenes, the way any of these movies do, but it feels splintered in many different directions. Somewhere along the way it was decided Fast & Furious would become a self-serious and plodding affair, unconcerned with how it’s using our time. It wrestles fitfully with deaths it doesn’t earn, taking out Rodriguez’s Letty, who is returned to the series through some convoluted post-credits sequence in the following film.

The fourth entry hangs its hat on the same principles we’ve received during the last three ventures. So why does it feel like a spectacular letdown? It is essentially a pilot episode setting up a long-running TV series but not a very successful one. It has lent the road for a greater expansion to come, but it’s a muddled process getting there, with bored actors who have done this all before and a bored audience that has seen it all.

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Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious is a necessary bad movie. It brings Paul Walker and Vin Diesel back together—as God intended it—for the first time since the original outing. It is the first in the new line of getting the crew back together films and yet does not feel at all like a celebration with Tyrese Gibson of 2 Fast 2 Furious notably absent. Perhaps it was meant as a reclamation of the franchise.

The feeling is that the plot is once again an excuse for action, a concept that feels more likely for a videogame than a feature length film. Once the dreariness sets in, there’s nothing remarkably fast or furious about the proceedings here. This is a reboot of missed potential with one fun scene providing only an opportunity for growth from this point.

Fast Five

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Fast Five.

It may have taken five movies to get here, but finally someone had asked: what if The Fast and The Furious were greater than the sum of its parts? Fast Five is our proof that it can exist beyond puerile genre exercises and can be as well-plotted and neatly choreographed as any action film out there. In Justin Lin’s third contribution as director, he has elevated the work from workmanlike car porn to a film that’s in the conversation for the great films of 2011 (if not for the highly elevated Drive).

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Fast Five.

It helps that Fast Five is playing with a loaded deck. The Fast and the Furious series had been around long enough at this point to play to its own nostalgia. It’s a big warm family reunion without all the in-fighting. Here, Fast Five establishes the forthcoming DNA for the series: it is about cars but they only matter because of the people inside them and family always comes first.

It was at this point where I began marathoning these films on a consistent basis with my younger brother. It became our shared cinema experience. It didn’t matter how bad a few of the original films were, because these brought us together. That’s what they are all about: a bonding experience. And from Five on, we found something of ourselves and our relationship preserved on the screen. We continue to get together for the latest films in our adult years. For something that had previously seemed brainless and just-for-fun, the series provided us a new connection and camaraderie where no other films have.

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Fast Five.

With that, I want to say it still feels personally close. And I can still get excited about the train scene in the desert, where cars are offloaded from ramps at blistering speeds and ends in a steep descent off a cliff. I’m still filled with adrenaline every time The Rock and Vin Diesel’s characters meet for the first time and an incredibly satisfying fight breaks out, where they drive one another through not one, but two windows. And when the crew’s dragging a bank vault down the streets of Rio de Janeiro, tethered only to two sports cars, where incredible feats of storyboarding and editing come together for one of my all-time favorite bait and switch chase sequences. It’s all a victory of thoughtful consideration, a cast expertly used to their fullest potential.

Fast Five isn’t a perfect film. Its dialogue exists only as an excuse for action or direct scene development. It seems that any conversation of depth and weight is covered by an iceberg principle, where only the part we need to understand is spoken. It’s a taut crime drama that goes beyond motorist pursuits; The Fast and Furious is now a movie for everyone with a family, or those without who have found their own tribe. This mass appeal never comes across as cheap or exploitative; it’s just the truth. Let’s celebrate big movies with a heart.

Fast & Furious 6

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The fact is I cannot explain in any cohesive way what Fast & Furious 6 is about. That’s OK because the movie can’t explain itself either. When taking on reviewing every piece of the franchise, I knew I’d encounter something like a memory-fogged fatigue where everything blends into the next, where a sequence as flashy as taking on a militarized tank on a highway mixes into my memory bank of so much other vehicular mayhem. The one dominant memory of Fast & Furious 6 is that it has a single sequence as the core excuse for the rest of the movie.

The make-and-break scene is a fantastic airplane chase along a seemingly never-ending runway. As the lengthy sequence goes further and further, you think, maybe they captured as much footage as they could to tightly edit it into a concise package and decided, all of this is good, let’s pretend this is the longest runway in the world. And it’s an absolutely enthralling series of events. They get such great—and literal—mileage out of this set-piece, one of my favorite action set pieces of all time, that it remains the one resounding memory of a scatterbrained film with more big ideas than sense.

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Fast & Furious 6 – Wherein the never-ending runway sequence finds a satisfying conclusion

Fast & Furious 6 hopes we do not remember very much from earlier entries in the franchise, as it recasts the always game Michelle Rodriguez as Letty… the same Rodriguez as Letty who died and has now been brought back because that’s what we want anyway.

It is no coincidence this is a film about memory loss, especially about Rodriguez reconnecting with Vin Diesel, when the crew remembered this was a series about family and needed to fill out the script. So forgive our blank expressions when we realize that nothing is so permanent in the series—until the tragic events surrounding the next film—and have experienced a kind of vicarious memory wipe, in trade with one of our favorite characters.

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Fast & Furious 6 – Letty, who remembers nothing, not even her character’s death.

The other thing about Fast & Furious 6 is it’s the last of the series to have a dedicated setting. The events of the film significantly circulate around London, leading up to a phenomenal post-credits reveal. Warning: spoilers here: what happens after the credits is that the superbly named Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) takes out Tokyo Drift stalwart Han Lue (Sung Kang). (If we have selective amnesia, could we have him back please?) The pairing of London leading to this big sell for the British actor works entirely as intended. This pivotal moment marks the end of director Justin Lin’s time with the series, and so he takes the character he’s cultivated with him.

Lin had a beautiful run with the franchise. Of his work, Tokyo Drift and Fast Five remain the best throughout the entire series, while Fast & Furious and Fast & Furious 6 are muddled examples of revisionist filmmaking. It has two final moments of high-impact that really sell off the idea that we had a good time, but the rest of the time we may struggle to remember what it was we loved about these in the first place, until we’re finally reminded it’s all about family and fun.

Furious 7

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Furious 7, or: how Fast & Furious is gonna make you cry. This is the final entry for Paul Walker. The star’s shadow is cast large over the production. His co-star’s faces are marked with visible grief and pain throughout specific scenes. The emotions and sense of duty to family is real now, the consequences of living life a quarter-mile at a time, realized before us in a stunning tragedy that inserts an earned grimness to the proceedings but also a celebration of what we have always loved.

The ending finds Walker and Vin Diesel meeting up for a final drive. Walker’s brothers work as stand-ins while fantastic computer rendering emulates his more exacting features. We get one last smile, part artificial, part an artifact of the family left behind. This end leaves me choking on tears, the same as when I viewed it in the theater with my brother, a viewing situation which increased the feeling exponentially. It had always been our thing and now there was this emotional anchor behind all the great moments, something with genuine gravity and feeling, and I just lose it every damn time.

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Furious 7

Due to the untimely real-life death during shooting, this means that creative liberties were taken to make everything come together. There are many shots of Walker, or his brothers, just off-scene, the moments that were left, like a blistered wound being peeled off. There is the early scene when Walker has his son and is putting him in the car when a bomb goes off and we feel such a surreal sorrow and sense of loss. His long-time series partner Jordana Brewster chokes through lines and Diesel’s gravelly tone drops to a flat affect as we realize that we must enjoy the present. It will not always be.

This was always going to be the hardest one to write, as I try to find the fun amidst a slew of regret and gratitude. Thankfully Furious 7’s still up for a good time. It features an insane airdrop sequence, where the entire crew literally take flight in their cars. In the last few films, good straight-forward racing has been dropped in favor of vehicle-centric stunt work that puts a premium on digital effects. This works tremendously well during the airborne car sequence and what could be better than to have Walker’s final moments on screen feeling absolutely in defiance of his own death. He was a star with such gravity and power that even posthumously, he had to be given a fair exit.

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Furious 7

Furious 7 is an even-handed attempt to tie a bow around an actor’s great contributions to a franchise. Among his crew, we feel the loss with them and understand what a gift this all has been. I still hold this one close to my heart. Walker’s final moments on-screen cemented his legacy beautifully. While Furious 7’s great success in relaying what it’s always been about comes with a token of regret, we cannot help but appreciate having been along for the ride all this time.

The Fate of the Furious

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Family is everything is the repeated mantra of Fast & Furious. Our eighth entry—the first after Paul Walker’s tragic death—is about the possibility of future generations. The finest moments are when it’s forward-looking. It’s Dwayne Johnson leading a Haka war dance for his daughter’s soccer squad. It’s Jason Statham executing guy after guy on a plane while equipped with a baby in a holder. It’s—spoilers—Vin Diesel naming his newborn son after Walker’s character, Brian. This is the spirit and the heart of the franchise brought to bear upon the viewer.

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The Fate of the Furious – all that sweet action and no subject

What it’s gotten away from is finding love in the big dumb moments. Oh, they’re there, increasingly digitized, and removed from the human performances that center that kind of shot. They’ve strayed so far from climactic action that carries a legitimate character concern, it all plays out as empty-calorie entertainment. A good example is in New York, when all these cars are taken over with auto-drive technology and sent careening off parking structures, all routed to one spot and causing complete mayhem. But the series has never been about what’s happening to the cars, it’s been about the people inside them, and by overemphasizing these moments, it’s really cut out the heart of why we’re here.

Everyone you love from the series returned, except Walker. This leaves an interesting problem. The same way Lucas Black played Fake Paul Walker back in Tokyo Drift, so too does Scott Eastwood here. It’s creepy casting at best, replacing Walker with lookalikes whenever he’s busy or dead, but that’s what the franchise gets up to.

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The Fate of the Furious – Our male stars get Big Dad Moments

Some interesting dynamic shifts are made here. Charlize Theron plays the corny-named Cipher, who’s mostly interested in wanton destruction and re-zoning the earth into a technological dark age. Then we have Kurt Russell as the better-named Mr. Nobody, who does fine work briefing the missions and setting up some plotting. They’re both tremendous inclusions in a film that’s chosen to be stagnating anyway, all of its star power be damned. Most interesting, Statham has also joined the squad, and there’s some real fun power dynamics between him and Johnson and how they met in prison that’s bizarrely inspired at least a couple scenes from major blockbusters in the last year.

Fate begins with a wonderfully shot race in Havana and ends with high-impact sequences around a frozen tundra with nuclear submarines, harpoon guns, and all kinds of wild iced out frenetic friction. F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, 2013) does a serviceable job directing but lacks the pure exhilaration for doing the work that came through with Justin Lin and James Wan’s entries. A lot of the big work is done by computers now and that’s good and fine for an opening weekend in theaters, but what are you going to bring home to your television? The answer is a few performances that remind us of family and the great void left by an actor—Walker—who exemplified exactly what that meant.

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