We all have our cultural blindspots. Some people have never seen a single Star Wars film. Others couldn't tell you the difference between Doctor McCoy and Mr. Scott, or what makes a hobbit distinct from a dwarf. Even among film critics, we who attempt to see and educate ourselves on as many far-flung corners of the cinematic universe as humanly possible, there are (sometimes embarrassing) gaps.
Me? When this week started, I'd never seen any films in the now-hexalogy that is The Fast and the Furious, the series that has grown from humble beginnings as a movie about muscle-bound muscle-car racers into a hugely successful and well-known action franchise. Well-known, but not to me. That situation has been rectified, though: In one punishing, 12-hour stretch, I caught up on over a decade of speed, fury, hulking pecs, and piercing blue eyes.
Seeing these six films in what was essentially a single sitting (I did need to leave the house, much to my couch's relief, to see the most recent installment) left me feeling like I'd spent half a day inhaling exhaust fumes. But I'm not going to blame the Fast/Furious series for that. It's entirely possible that my inability to focus on something so simple as a game of Words With Friends afterwards could have happened after any six movies watched end to end. I shouldn't have been surprised that I passed out on the couch immediately after returning from the screening of Fast & Furious 6 and didn't wake until dawn, bleary-eyed and head spinning.
The marathon did offer up some actual surprises, not least of which was how quickly most of those 12 hours passed.
Say what you want about The Fast and the Furious movies. Call them big, dumb, loud, ridiculously implausible, distractingly melodramatic, and annoyingly repetitive. I won't disagree with any of that. If I had to watch one more overwrought Vin Diesel scene featuring his Dom Toretto growling, sad-eyed and solemn, about the importance of family, I might have disowned my own just out of spite. But after speeding through these films with the fast-burning intensity of a nitrous-infused engine, I can now understand the appeal of this series, which has made $1.5 billion so far and shows no signs of slowing down. Not only that, I'll likely turn out eagerly for the next installment.
That's not to say these are masterpieces. The 2001 debut, The Fast and the Furious, is a pretty generic action flick: a fine enough diversion, but hardly the sort of thing one would expect to spawn a long-running dynasty. The sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, already made it seem like the series had reached a dead end, having packed in more neon lights and drug-dealing swagger than every Miami Vice script combined. It's practically unwatchable.
I can pinpoint the exact moment near the start of the third film, Tokyo Drift, when my thoughts began to do some drifting of their own, wondering if this whole endeavor might have been ill-advised. One character throws a baseball at a car's rear window, and despite it leaving a nice round hole in the glass and obviously going into the car, the next shot shows the ball landing on the pavement next to the car. If the filmmakers have given up caring about such basic continuity only a few minutes into the third installment in the series, the rest of this day was going to be really long.
As it turned out, the third film is just self-consciously silly, gleefully ripping off the Karate Kid but subbing driving skills for martial arts. It features none of the cast of the previous films in anything other than a cameo, and to some extent feels like a desperate attempt to switch things up in a franchise already running on empty. But by the end, it's not so bad, really: We do get a welcome break from the ceaselessly steely gaze of series regular Paul Walker, and Tokyo Drift finally boasts a director, in Justin Lin, with the knack for inventive car sequences that a series about street racing deserves.
Little did I know that the stylistic shifts of Tokyo Drift would barely register compared to what the series had in store in the fifth film. Unfortunately, to get there, I did have to endure No. 4, simply titled Fast and Furious, as if the producers were so tired that they could no longer even be bothered with definite articles or numbers. It's still not as terrible as 2 Fast, but it's more forgettable. Going into this marathon, my biggest worry was that all of these movies would just fuse together in my mind into an unrecognizable blob of metal, smoking rubber, and asphalt. For the most part, that didn't happen—except in the case of Fast and Furious, the plot points of which my brain keeps trying to stick into other movies.
But then something remarkable happens. The producers make a conscious shift away from the car culture that has defined it in an attempt to widen the audience. Series regulars and past favorites like Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson return to create an Avengers-style supergroup of heist artists, and Dwayne Johnson shows up as their perfect authoritarian foil. It's a market-driven decision, but pays off artistically. Fast Five, released a decade after the first movie, not only reinvigorates the series' commercial prospects, but accomplishes something far more vital: It saves the last five hours of my movie-watching from becoming a slog through mediocrity.
Fast & Furious Six continues on in the same vein, and may just be my favorite of the lot, which is a pretty astounding feat. After 10 hours of watching the same characters, many of the same situations, and way too many shots of sleek street racers, here I was rapt with attention for two more hours, as the team now nimbly transformed from heist artists to mercenaries.
So what did I learn from the day I devoted to The Fast and the Furious? That Paul Walker's crystal blue eyes are dreamy? That Dwayne Johnson pretty much makes any movie he's in better? That it's possible for film series to actually improve with age? That car chases with practical effects and real stunt drivers are still more thrilling than most CGI spectacles? That staring at a screen for 12 hours will make you more tired than actually getting outside and doing something with your day?
All of these things, sure. But there's a more important takeaway. I generally enjoy even the cheesiest of action flicks, but for some reason I spent years rolling my eyes at the impending release of each sequel in this series, without having seen a single one. Now though, not only do I not consider it a day wasted or lost, but I'd actually call myself a fan. It just goes to show that you should never judge a car until you've had a look at what's under the hood.