F6 – The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006 – Justin Lin)

Han

Well, we might as well deal with the big question first… ‘Does watching The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift after Fast & Furious 6 work?’  Because, the nerdy side of me that loves the oppressive continuity of ongoing film series adores the fact that this film is chronologically set later than when it was made.  And it’s easy to see why Lin became enamoured with the charm of Sung Kang’s performance, and sought to place a murdered character back into the series.  It’s perhaps the ultimate act of repositioning that the series makes; essentially watching the films in this order re-orientates this film around Han rather than the nominal protagonist of Lucas Black’s Sean Boswell.

Which is an interesting choice, and Kang is a more engaging performer than Boswell.  But… whilst a generous reading of the film can characterise Han’s return to street racing as the act of a man returning to a simple life in the face of trauma, there is little in his performance that convinces us that he is coping with the loss of Giselle.  And there’s no real understanding of why he is hanging around with a bunch of kids.  And the (at the time, fan-service) street-racing cameo of Dom Toretto is impossible to read as a man hunting down the villainous Deckard Shaw.  Watching Tokyo Drift in this position can only be seen as a waste of potentially worthwhile emotional capital, and a severe scale-back of dynamic action set pieces.

Which is not to say it’s a bad film.  On the contrary, much of Tokyo Drift reinforces the essential themes of the series.  Sean Boswell is a true hero in that he comes from poverty, and his shit-eating grin identifies him as a charming irritant to those in power.  There are some extraordinarily good car chase scenes, including a wonderful moment where an entire crowd of hundreds of people scatter as Boswell’s car ploughs through a metropolitan crossroad, and whilst there is some visually dated use of computer-aided morphing during these chases scenes, they are grounded in a physicality that Lin would reject in his next entry in the series, Fast & Furious.  But the tendency to refer to this entry as almost a direct-to-video film is unwarranted, such is the strong central narrative of a man escaping a toxic Southern American culture to find acceptance in others and himself.

But some of Lin’s problems sneak back into the series.  Women are objectified (quite literally, when they are awarded as prizes in the aforementioned races), and there is a distasteful proclivity to frame many of the scenes as a ‘look-at-what-these-funny-Japanese-people-do’ that is reminiscent of Lost in Translation (2003 – Sofia Coppola).  Other aspects of the film seem incongruous; Lil’ Bow Wow’s (another rapper) car is appallingly gauche, and there is an amusing moment where ‘Timberlake’ is used as an insult, which somewhat dates the film (even if we know, deep-down, that Timberlake can never be a compliment).

 

In retrospect, it’s better to watch this film series in production order, rather than chronological order.  There’s a charm in seeing a franchise return to its small-scale roots after seeing jumbo-jets crash and burn, but whilst the film reinforces the theme of finding a constructed family in the world, it lacks the wide cast of characters that have rooted the franchise so well.  The series has been steadily escalating its action sequences, and watching this film in this position can only be a disappointment.  Watched with a contemporaneous 2006 mindset, it’s a movie where a franchise is trying to find new stars (Lucas Black and Sung Kang) and reassert Vin Diesel as the creative mastermind of the series, after he was effectively side-lined in 2 Fast 2 Furious.  Some of these threads were followed, some were rejected, and it is a fundamentally enjoyable film, but there’s no point watching it looking for a development of Han’s character in response to the loss of Giselle; the emotional content just isn’t there, and that can only be a disappointment.

 

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. Fast & Furious 6
  2. Fast Five
  3. The Fast and the Furious
  4. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
  5. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  6. Fast & Furious
  7. Los Bandoleros
  8. Turbo Charged Prelude

 

Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:

 

The whole bloody film.

F5 – Fast & Furious 6 (2013 – Justin Lin)

Giselle

Fast & Furious 6 is less about repositioning characters and more about appreciating the history the series has built up at this stage.  The escalation of Toretto’s criminality – from trafficking portable DVD players to crashing planes – is explicitly referenced, and there is a real benefit to the real-time aging that the characters have experienced.  When Brian and Mia become parents, it is touching that we remember their juvenile infatuation and how things have messily progressed since then.  It is less touching when we remember that Jordana Brewster brought real intelligence, and the possibility of stardom to The Fast and the Furious; now she is window dressing, removed completely from the main plot until the final moments of the film.

Moving away from the drug barons that have provided the series’ main antagonists until this point, Fast & Furious 6 begins the franchises’ adoption of comic-book cliché supervillains.  Here we have the mirror opposites of Dom’s crew, each a twisted reflection of our beloved heroes.  Surprisingly, amongst them is Michelle Rodriguez, making a welcome return as Letty.  Seeing Rodriguez in this film, and others such as Avatar (2009 – James Cameron), I am struck by how charismatic a movie star she is.  Here she is so good as a woman who doesn’t know who she is, much like Brian had been up until this point.  Fatherhood brings him  a sense of peace and of understanding of who he is.  In a crew dominated by a lot of mouthy know-it-alls (and make no mistake, Dom Toretto is the biggest one of these), he is the rock, the voice of perception.

Seen in the light of their darkened reflections, the rest of the crew begin to come into their own.  Dwayne Johnson begins to assert himself over the narrative, and makes a character point of Luke Hobbs’ willingness to leap from moving vehicles.  Giselle and Han give a touching portrayal of a genuinely supportive, trusting and understanding relationship – one that makes you wish for a spin-off starring just the two of them.  Giselle’s death is genuinely moving, and one that underlines just how capable Gal Gadot was in giving strength to a paper-thin character.  And Tyrese Gibson just (just) about manages to stop Roman Pearce becoming a walking stereotype.  Pearce is obsessed with money, sex and often seems to exist simply to make jokes, all attributes often offensively given to black actors.  But his charismatic reading of his lines give the impression that he is the only one in the room who understands how ridiculous this all is.

(And it is ridiculous… this a series that tries to get you to take Vin Diesel as a romantic lead seriously, after all.)

Since the successful introduction of Dwayne Johnson in the previous movie, the franchise starts to make a point of casting established action stars with each film.  Gina Carano (best known for Haywire (2011 – Steven Soderbergh)) and Joe Taslim (seen in The Raid (2011 – Gareth Evans)) are brought in as bad guys and bring with them an astonishing physicality.  The fight between Carano and Rodriguez on the London Underground is as nasty and vicious as anything seen within action cinema, and an example of two highly capable stars pushing their bodies to the limit in their verisimilitude and desire to show the punishment of violence.

The setting of London is not just a pretty backdrop for the action, another stop on their global adventure.  Despite the rather messy geography used in the film (knowing a city well makes it harder to fudge how they got from point A to point B, a fact we must assume to be true for every other location in the series), the film takes an admirable approach to the CCTV culture of the U.K.  The country is the most surveilled population in the world, since the nation’s gleeful adoption of the technology in the wake of the truly shocking images discovered as part of the Jamie Bulger murder investigation.  The horrific images of a small child being led away by other small children led the population to accept mass surveillance regardless of any infringement of civil liberties.  In this film, the technology is used to track and locate opponents easily on several occasions.

What makes Fast & Furious 6 so good though, is its continual employment of action.  In previous films, the action sequences, be they fist-fights, car chases or heists have felt very much like sequences.  Here they become a very fabric of the movie, intrinsically woven in.  The film has a constant forward momentum, and avoids the lazy trap of having character sit around in rooms of various sizes and talk about their emotions.  In previous films, these always brought the plot to a grinding halt; here Dom convinces Letty of his love through action (leaping from a bridge to catch her), rather than words.  And they are extraordinary action scenes.  Justin Lin regularly employs a helicoptered camera to capture motion, and there is a suplex move involving Toretto and Hobbs against a man-mountain of an opponent towards the end of the film, that is something quite astonishing.  It’s a brilliant movie and a high point of the series so far.

And there is a gripping post-credits sequences that significantly reframes the events of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.  Better watch that film after all!

 

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. Fast & Furious 6
  2. Fast Five
  3. The Fast and the Furious
  4. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  5. Fast & Furious
  6. Los Bandoleros
  7. Turbo Charged Prelude

 

 

Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:

 

Brian: III (I read the opening dash to Mia’s hospital as a street race… Brian convincingly wins, even though it is not commented upon)

Dom: III

 

 

Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:

 

2 (again! Giselle asks ‘What’s our next adventure?’ before being told Tokyo by Han, and at the end of the film he says he has to go to Tokyo… FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER!!!

 

Best line:

 

There are several contenders but Ludacris’ ‘We need more alphabets!’ is a strong second place.

 

Winner has to go to Roman Pearce’s insouciant comment ‘Why do I smell baby oil?’ as Luke Hobbs enters the room behind his back.  Possible one of the greatest lines in cinema, full stop.

F4: Fast Five (2011 – Justin Lin)

Hobbs

Fast Five begins with a replay of the final moments of Fast & Furious; by this stage, Vin Diesel’s translation of Sylvester Stallone’s career is complete.  He is using the same tricks as Stallone’s Rocky (1976 – John G. Avilsden) franchise, as much as he is adopting the elder star’s screen persona.  The replay also underlines that this is a franchise growing in critical and commercial appreciation; new fans are coming to series after hearing positive word of mouth (and for the record, I was one of those people.)

Even by this stage the franchise has established a huge cast of characters, both lead and supporting.  It is adopting the approach of The Simpsons, which innovatively focused on producing a world of additional people, replete with distinctly drawn personalities, catchphrases and emotional ties to the main cast.  This means the return of Matt Schulze as Vince from The Fast and the Furious and Eva Mendes as Monica Fuentes from 2 Fast 2 Furious – they bring with them a level of emotional complexity that would not arise otherwise.  There is no exposition to explain their characters; the audience is expected to get up to speed themselves.

Additionally, each film in the series will now bring in new characters to the mix; the world grows ever bigger.  Fast Five makes the frankly delightful choice to introduce Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs.  Taking a role originally written for an elder statesman, such as Tommy Lee Jones, Johnson hurls himself into the franchise with little consideration of its existing stars.  He is eminently watchable; gruff, amusing, and physically dominant.  There is no doubt in his mind that this film belongs to him.  By the time Hobbs destroys Toretto’s Dodge Charger, we know we are seeing an oppositional mountain of masculinity to Vin Diesel (and their passive aggressive social media games recently only underline this).  Johnson’s sense-of-humour is vital to this, bringing a charisma to his part that Diesel could never reach.  In doing so, O’Conner’s role changes.  He is no longer antagonistic, and instead becomes a peaceful counter-balance to the oppressive testosterone of Diesel and Johnson around him.

But what is apparent by this stage is the true multi-cultural representation of the lead cast.  It is extraordinarily diverse (and Fast Five goes to great lengths to underline that even Giselle, previously ethnically ambiguous, is a former Israeli soldier).  Even considering that Diesel, and to a much lesser extent Johnson, have traded on a level of racial ambivalence, the Fast & Furious cast stands in defiance against the bland Caucasian dominance of Hollywood.  In an era where Marvel prides themselves on solitary female and black (but never both… god forbid….) actors, the Fast & Furious line-up stands as truly progressive, giving vital prominence to racial and ethnic groups woefully under-represented on screen, such as Sung Kang’s Korean American heritage.  Indeed, this diversity becomes text, when the federal agents acting against the crew realise that their imperialist, white standards and practices won’t operate in the diverse world of Toretto’s crew.  Their only hope is to integrate, as Hobbs ultimately does.

Many of the key elements of the series are still in place.  Characters are repurposed (Ludacris’ Tej Parker is inexplicably repositioned as a tech expert) explained away as unseen adventures.  Skeevy sexual politics continue under Lin’s direction (it is pretty shameful that Gal Gadot’s arse becomes a plot point, and the opening sequence relies on the Mission: Impossible style tension of heists gone wrong.

But there are clear new additions.  The film has a bloated running time, underlining its status as a blockbuster tentpole release (essential to the running of the Universal studio).  The series adopts a Bond-ian approach to locations, visiting a series of exotic locales (there are an almost impossible number of shots of Christ-the-Redeemer to emphasise just how much this film is set in Rio).  And action sequences come to the fore.  There are foot chases a-plenty (very much a signature style of twenty-first century action cinema after the success of The Bourne Supremacy (2004 – Paul Greengrass), physical fights between characters (the fight between Hobbs and Toretto operates as two huge pieces of meat pounding the crap out of each other) and some extraordinary car chases.  The opening and losing sequences are superb, successfully balancing rapid motion and the occasional necessary physical stillness.  There is a glee to the franchises’ willingness to easily annihilate physical structures.  Buildings crumble, glass shatters, cars are tossed about like footballs; all this underlines the casual appetite for destruction that action cinema enjoys.  The heists were always a feature of the series; now they are essential.

With this comes a reduction in some other aspects.  Jordana Brewster is again shunted to the side (a movement that is shamefully continued over the next few films).  Street racing is almost completely removed – Lin wittily cuts away from a sequence just as it is about to begin in this film.  His direction is on occasions extraordinary – there is a long shot of assassins swarming out of the slums of Rio that is quite beautiful.  And the series admits that its reliance on the tension between Toretto and O’Conner is over.  At the beginning of the film, O’Conner is still very much a rookie, but by the end he is a brother.  Along the way, there is a touching sequence where the two discuss their respective fathers; Toretto’s was ever-present, generous and gregarious, O’Conner’s was absent, a blot on his memory.  It explains Dom’s utter conviction in himself, and Brian’s shifting, unfixed personality, a personality he ultimately finds stability in the love of Mia by the end of the film.  No longer will we wonder who O’Conner is, he is now a stable, strong man.

Fast Five is an extraordinary film.  One that the cemented the franchise’s reputation as one of the most invigorating action film series of modern cinema.  The opening sequence with its car surfing escapades, and closing, almost half-hour police vault heist are both shot with a determination and exhilaration of style.  The series is no longer relying on superfluous CGI to make its point.  The current consensus is that single-take shots are essential for invigorating action sequences, but Fast Five proves that quick cutting has its place, as long as it maintains a ccoherence of motion.  It is the high point of the franchise so far.

Oh, and it’s revealed that Letty isn’t dead!  It’s a shame Dom has got over her, and is now fucking someone else…

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. Fast Five
  2. The Fast and the Furious
  3. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  4. Fast & Furious
  5. Los Bandoleros
  6. Turbo Charged Prelude

 

 

Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:

 

Brian: II (though Dom lets him win to not hurt his conscience)

Dom: III

 

 

Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:

 

2 (once emphasised in a discussion about a magazine, and once in conversation between Han and Giselle ‘I thought you wanted to go to Tokyo?’, ‘We’ll get there eventually.’ – it’s almost as if they were planning on fitting more films into the continuity slot)

 

 

Best line:

 

‘My smile is not that great.’ Elsa Pataky’s (a woman who is a professional smiler) Elena Neves responding to Luke Hobbs sexist reason for employing her.

F3: Fast & Furious (2009 – Justin Lin)

Mia

After a couple of what were considered to be disappointing sequels, Fast & Furious reunited Vin Diesel and Paul Walker within the franchise that made them… well ‘famous’ isn’t the word… maybe ‘known’ is better.  And much like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat (1995 – Michael Mann) this film delights in the cocktease of delaying their eventual meeting, and so builds our anticipation.  The relationship between the two – of what is up to this point some form of grudging respect, and will blossom into some peculiar form of love – moves to become the foundation of the majority of the subsequent movies in the series.

The opening sequence, when taken alongside Los Bandoleros, feels ultimately like it is from a completely different movie.  Taking its cues from the Mission: Impossible film series, it is the tale of a heist gone epically wrong.  Featuring an almost apocalyptic oil-tanker robbery, Justin Lin begins to integrate CGI into the still highly physical stunt sequences that are the highlights of series.  From this scene onwards, entire landscapes and vehicles are constructed within computers – a fact that deeply harms the climatic sequence of this movie set in an entirely unreal underground tunnel.  Lin will later forego such overwhelming fabrication, and rely much more on his physical second unit stunt team.  This opening sequence is glorious, and emphasises just how appealing a screen-presence is Michelle Rodriguez.  But it feels curiously detached from the body of the film, and reminds you of those Bond films – particularly The World is Not Enough (1999 – Michael Apted) – where the pre-credits sequence is so much more thrilling than the rest of the film.

Because it is lethargic film.  The messy, slightly-incoherent underground sequences are distracting and feature almost weightless cars; thus much of the remaining pleasure comes from our slightly-knowing response to lines such as Han’s reference to ‘crazy shit in Tokyo’.

One of the strongest moves of the series is placing Paul Walker with cropped hair in a smart suit, because he looks smashing, and it is a huge leap forward from the slightly adolescent short-sleeve shirts he was sporting in 2 Fast 2 Furious.  In addition, the series transforms him yet again into a highly agile physical performer.  His opening foot chase is exhilarating and underlines how the character has once again been repositioned… this time nominally into a reluctant, closed-down police officer.  One of the most interesting retcons the series performs is when it determinedly moves O’Conner into a member of the anti-hero group that Dom’s gang represents.  The series attempts to write his motivation as an act of self-recognition, where he realises that he was a bad guy all along, but there is little prior evidence for this movement.

Ultimately, Brian’s appeal is that he is an individual who is not fixed yet.  He hasn’t quite figured out who he is, and his arrested development speaks profoundly to the struggles of self-identification that many of us face.  His act of freeing Dom Toretto at the end of the first film is once again re-written; now it becomes a moment of self-loathing, where he realised he respected Dom more than himself.  The series delights in its mercurial characters, constantly re-shifting and reconfiguring them.  They are vehicles, designed to modified and upgraded.

In opposition to O’Conner stands Dom Toretto.  Nominally mourning the loss of Letty (and Diesel is not particularly interested in modifying his performance to incorporate grief).  Though some heavy-handed imagery, Dom becomes the arbiter of atonement, though the series neglects to underline how this represents a return to the violence he fought so hard to avoid in his first appearance.  Perhaps this is how he copes with death – by becoming death himself.  Delightfully, Toretto is recoded as queer; he returns to a largely asexual role in his senseless rejection of Gal Gadot.  But his benign presence of strength looms over the film, and pulls everything around him into orbit.  It is his kindness, his leadership, his motivation that drives the plot along.

And there are great moments to the plot.  The twist of Braga being the main villain rather than a henchman is genuinely shocking.  But the film suffers from some of Lin’s choices.  As much as the slightly toxic environments of the street racing scene were present at the start of the series, it is once Lin starts to direct, that they move fully into the gratuitous shots of bottoms that plague the series.  Add to this, the tired trope of dead girlfriends (Letty), the utter side-lining of Mia Toretto (and Letty, I suppose) and the use of ‘pussy’ as an insult, and we start to see a distasteful element of misogyny enter the series.  Jordana Brewster does her best to work against this – she creates an effective performance of a woman who was hurt and betrayed by O’Conner when she was a child – but she pushed to the side of the narrative as the film progresses.  Only Gal Gadot (another non-actor who becomes central to the series), making her series debut as Gisele Yashar, performs with a degree of agency, intelligence and intimidation.

But ultimately, the film lags.  When one of your sequences relies on the tension of getting caught on CCTV, you know that as an audience it is a struggle to stay engaged.  Fast & Furious ultimately works as a soft-reboot, and a taste of the thrills yet to come.

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. The Fast and the Furious
  2. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  3. Fast & Furious
  4. Los Bandoleros
  5. Turbo Charged Prelude

 

 

Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:

 

Brian: I

Dom: III

 

 

Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:

 

1 (Han refers to crazy shit happening there)

F2: 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003 – John Singleton)

20170501_205229

For a franchise that is essentially driven by Vin Diesel, it is extraordinary in retrospect to see that the series pinned its hopes on the charm of Paul Walker for its first sequel.  Retroactively looking at their careers, there was little between them; they both had their fair share of successes and flops, but Diesel’s slightly tedious posturing led to him being erased from not only this, but his fairly obnoxious xXx (2002 – Rob Cohen) franchise.

To add salt to the wound, the absence of Diesel is barely made explicit in 2 Fast 2 Furious; but implicitly, the film has to accommodate his non-appearance.  To achieve this, the film repositions Paul Walker; he is given a more adventurous past, one where he regularly broke the law and mixed in racially diverse circles.  It is a far cry from the gentleman of the first film who offered to wash the dishes.  The film also re-orientates his choice at the end of The Fast and the Furious; where once it was the discretion of a man in love with his criminal friend who gave him acceptance, it now was the decision made by an individual atoning for past mistakes (specifically his inability to defend Roman Pearce in his time of need).  In doing so, O’Conner’s origin story moves closer to Toretto’s – this will become self-evident once O’Conner starts driving a similar Dodge Charger to Toretto.  The series will make a habit of altering and deepening its characters as it progresses; see the fuck buddy dynamic of Letty and Toretto become a passionate romance without any on-screen evidence.

Many of the key qualities of the franchise become apparent in this film.  The Day-Glo neon colour scheme moves to the forefront.  Fantastical high-tech equipment is employed without explanation.  The series demonstrates its disregard for the profession of acting in its continual employment of models and rappers in supporting roles (this is a policy that pays off as much as it fails).  And for the first time, the film has a clearly identifiable bad guy.  With his stomach-tunnelling rat scene, Cole Hauser positions himself as a villain in the James Bond tradition; the causal cruelty he employs in a Miami milieu bring to mind Robert Davi in Licence to Kill (1989 – John Glen).

The addition of the aforementioned Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce is endearing; he is a subversive presence within the films, causally undermining the seriousness of the situations he is in through his inability to comprehend the scale of the heists he is participating in.  Everything is a surprise to him.  Later, he will prove to be one of the strongest members of the supporting cast, but here he unfortunately takes on many of the tropes of the black best friend; he is angry, he adds an urban authenticity to the white male lead, he is comical and overtly and inappropriately sexual in social situations.  It is an unfortunate element to a series that is for the most part racially progressive.  This film features some colour-blind romances.  In itself a good thing, but rightly or wrongly, these relationships are rarely simplistic in the real world, and the film fails to deal with any implicit or explicit issues.

Singleton directs with little sense of adventure and only really comes to life during the car chase scenes (of which there are far more than its predecessor).  He understands that the wide frame is highly effective when showing a driver behind the wheel of a car.  He uses CGI more cautiously, using it to subtly shift the frame between vehicles during the chase sequences rather than employ hard cuts.  The camera zooms and swirls between the different vehicles.  2 Fast 2 Furious ups the chase sequences from the first film, largely by employing more vehicles.  There is an astonishing scene where dozens of cars swarm out of a garage to confuse the pursuing police force, and Singleton wilfully treats police cars as cannon fodder, smashing and crashing them together in a way that recalls John Landis’ gleeful The Blues Brothers (1980).

It’s unavoidable that this sequel isn’t as strong as the first film.  Thematically, is dilutes the exploration of family and acceptance into a rather superficial demonstration of the necessity of mending broken friendships.  There are many things that distract you; Paul Walker’s appalling short-sleeve shirts and white-boy-pretending-to-be-tough walk.  And it features a scene set at what is clearly the worst club in the world (and I’ve been to Zens).  But with its plethora of engaging car chases, it’s an enjoyable entry in the series.

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. The Fast and the Furious
  2. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  3. Turbo Charged Prelude

F1.5: Turbo Charged Prelude (2003 – Phillip G. Atwell)

Walker

Essentially a DVD bonus feature, this short film seeks to bridge The Fast and the Furious (2001 – Rob Cohen) with its sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003 – John Singleton).  The two short films within the franchise have demonstrated a formal inventiveness that the main sequence has not played with – this is a nearly silent sequence of endless montages featuring Paul Walker.  For something that is sold as ‘turbo charged’, it moves at a snail’s pace.

By eradicating Vin Diesel from the film’s narrative, the franchise moves into a more sexually conventional space, as marked by O’Conner’s flirtation with Minka Kelly (all thoughts of Jordana Brewster have gone).  But O’Conner is a man without a purpose; his decision to let Toretto escape at the end of the first film marks him as a failure, both within his profession (police officer) and personal life (part of Toretto’s crew).  He is currently functionless.  For O’Conner, this is unbearable; his fear of failure is a defining characteristic, and it explains his nomadic, desperate trek across the United States.

But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a fairly disposable, occasionally incoherent piece of filmmaking.  Roll on the sequel with the greatest film title ever…

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. The Fast and the Furious
  2. Turbo Charged Prelude

F1: The Fast and the Furious (2001 – Rob Cohen)

Dom

I first saw The Fast and the Furious on a VHS rental with my best friend, what, fifteen, sixteen years ago.  And I liked it; but I liked most movies that I saw that way – movies were a treat in my household.  And sniffily, in my early twenties, I would see the reviews of the various sequels, and sneer at the desperation of an irrelevant franchise (because the only thing more foolish than a teenage boy, is a twenty-something man).  But after seeing Fast Five, I realised that this was the most exciting, multicultural action franchise of the twenty-first century, whose focus on physical action made it stand in direct contrast to the barely coherent, vapid superhero movies that dominate the genre.  In this series, we’ll look at each film in the franchise in storyline chronological order.

 

Would you murder someone over a DVD player?  It’s important to note that The Fast and the Furious seems as intrinsically linked to the year in which it was made, as much as those sweaty, unsettling thrillers of the seventies (such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973 – Peter Yates)) seem linked to theirs.  The Fast and the Furious is set in a world of desirable DVD players, floppy discs and smoking inside.  It’s sun-kissed cinematography recalls a brighter, simpler time; with the only hint of danger coming from the very Matrix-y neon green undercarriages of the heist cars (the hyper-neon aesthetic of the films isn’t fully established yet).  The Fast and the Furious takes its superficiality in its stride; product placement is clear, no more so than in Dom Toretto’s preference for Coronas (the world’s second least pleasant beer after Fosters).

The movie finds its roots in a teen-friendly recast of Point Break (1991 – Kathryn Bigelow).  It is a familiar story of a rookie cop going deep undercover in the criminal underworld, until he is morally compromised by the acceptance he finds in that world.  Whilst this movie files down the queer romance of that film (significantly through the gregarious, charisma of Jordana Brewster), the cool tolerance of the surfer’s paradise is replaced by the exhilaration of street racing.  But The Fast and the Furious improves on its progenitor, by holding back the reveal of Brian O’Conner’s true profession until the half-hour mark.  It comes as a bolt out of the blue – and reveals our nominal lead to be Zelig of sorts, transforming his personality to suit the culture in which he moves.

Paul Walker is an actor clearly following in the zen-like naturalism tradition of Keanu Reeves.  His pretty-boy looks mask a man terrified of failure – and perhaps his transformative personality is a symptom of not wanting to seem dislikeable (a failure of acceptance) to anyone around him.  He is marked as coming from wealth (as are the Chinese antagonists of the film), a reality that is nearly always identified as obnoxious in the series (see the poser at the traffic lights in the film), but it is essential to his pretty white boy character that he has always been a winner – a personality Walker was quick to establish given his past career of jocks in films such as the masterful She’s All That (1999 – Richard Iscove).  Despite this, he is a man of integrity, and one who clearly rejects the hyper-masculine culture of the police force for a more accepting life.

In opposition/collaboration is Vin Diesel’s portrayal of Dominic Toretto.  Diesel’s screen presence is one of the more disruptive performances in modern Hollywood, so committed is he to sexually and racially ambiguous roles – the former is more coded in this series, despite his relatively chaste romance with Letty.  Even his fairly rote tough-guy act, masks a nobility and commitment to family that come to define his character.  Diesel sympathetically plays Toretto as a man terrified of going bad.  He is driven by a failure to control his anger, that led to deaths of those he cares about.  His trauma is healed when he steps into the role of surrogate father (represented physically by the 1970 Dodge Charger) for the constructed family he has built around him, where he is free to dispense his fortune-cookie bon-mots as wisdom.  His accomplice Jesse, dies because he places hope in a father other than Dom.  He also invents Catfish hunting five years early, such is his commitment to using Google.

The world Toretto represents – initially the street-racing scene, and then the more recognisable family within it – is a true multiculture.  Racial identity is sublimated within it (as typified by Diesel’s deliberately nonspecific identity) and it features a degree of sexual freedom that society represses.  Yet, sex is problematic within the culture from the start.  Women are objectified and treated like prizes on the one hand, and then exist in the servitude of domestic chores on the other.  It takes Michelle Rodriguez, a true unheralded screen presence, to interrupt this portrayal.  Her Letty is instantly and magnetically attractive, grimacing, capable and clearly smarter than the world in which she inhabits.  It is she who knows when to stop fighting, and she who proves her capability on the heist.

And it is an extraordinary heist.  Whilst some of the street racing scenes suffer from the pedestrian CGI that hampers this period’s (and if we’re honest, today’s) blockbusters, the final heist is an engaging, tense sequence that wrings an enormous amount of terror from a single shotgun.  Whilst the motorway is conspicuous in its lack of other vehicles other than the truck and those driven by Diesel’s crew, the camera is effectively placed low to the road surface in order to emphasise the dangerous speeds in which they are operating.  There is a real physical weight to the action; arms are shredded, tyres burn, and hands grip steering wheels with a necessary intensity needed to control such a vehicle in such a dangerous situation.  It is a genuinely thrilling sequence.

There is a tendency to present The Fast and the Furious as a small Point Break remake that somehow spawned an ongoing franchise.  But rewatching the film, I was gripped by how engaging the performances were and how remarkable the final heist sequence was.  Whilst it lacks some of the scale of the subsequent movies, that’s no bad thing, and it is a brilliantly engaging film.

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. The Fast and the Furious

 

Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:

 

Brian: I (I’m declaring the final sequence as a deliberate draw, and thus giving them a point each) 

Dom: II